Capsule Stage Reviews: The Columnist, Fool, Rome, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, The Wizard of Oz

The Columnist David Auburn received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his play Proof, and now turns his attention to the widely read Joseph Alsop, whose influential column until the mid-'70s made him one of the power brokers of Washington, D.C. Joe Alsop was a closeted homosexual when homosexuality was still deeply underground, making this new play already a period piece. It begins promisingly in a hotel room in Moscow in 1954, with Joe attempting to persuade a young male Russian, Andrei, to repeat their sexual encounter. John Kaiser portrays Joe, in owlish black horn-rimmed glasses, and brings a courtly charm to the role. Adam Richardson plays Andrei and creates an air of credible integrity. Their chemistry is intriguing, though irrelevant to the plot, but then there is no plot, just sketched scenes at Joe's home that are static and lifeless. We meet his younger brother and one-time collaborator, Stewart Alsop (Reid Self); Joe's fiancée and later wife, Susan Mary (Mykle McCoslin); and her teenage daughter, Abigail (Emma Yarrow), and we learn that Joe, a trusted adviser to JFK, is vain, name-dropping, self-centered, waspish and petty. Kaiser delivers his lines in a sing-song rhythm lacking variety, and fails to find the requisite authority. Self's portrayal of Stewart seems tentative, as though such a successful journalist had no self-confidence. McCoslin brings a slender, elegant beauty to the role of Joe's wife, but fails to project her voice. Yarrow creates Abigail as an interesting and credible teenager, no small feat. And in a minor role, Scott McWhirter, as the journalist David Halberstam, anchors the play with vigor and strength. Director Malinda L. Beckham delivers what she can from a lean larder of writing, and is also responsible for the often excellent costuming and, with Trevor Cone, the stylish set. Through March 15. Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — JJT

Fool The Alley Theatre presents the world premiere of a new comedy by the prolific Theresa Rebeck, an acclaimed playwright and television writer. Court jester Stuart waits in a castle kitchen for his turn at entertaining offstage royalty, hearing and envying the laughs that another unseen jester, Joss, is getting. Then Joss enters, and it's Stuart's time to entertain offstage, while Joss mocks his efforts. The jesters are linked to each other as part of the underclass, joined by the cook, Lizabeth — all are pawns on a chessboard that may be deadly. These three carry the play triumphantly, helped by the deft direction of Gregory Boyd, the Alley's artistic director. Jeremy Webb plays Stuart with an engaging smile and unflagging energy, and his reactions and body language are rich. Elizabeth Bunch plays Joss — this jester is a woman disguised as a man — adding beauty to extraordinary comic vivacity; she and Webb create a strong relationship. Carine Montbertrand plays Lizabeth, becoming the third musketeer in scheming against the overlords. Montbertrand is energetic, quick, subtle and vastly amusing, a match for the comedic talents of Webb and Bunch. Sean Dugan as evil courtier Marvel and Joey Collins as evil courtier Elliott create vivid and intriguing portraits. The king is played by Jeffrey Bean, who brings an imposing presence to the role of an amorous ruler. The Queen, who enters late in Act Two, is played by the entertaining Alma Cuervo, chatty to the point of garrulousness. Rebeck draws characters with heart and soul, making us care, so we become deeply involved in their welfare — important when beheadings loom on the horizon. This new play breezes into hilarity, with brilliant performances riding a taut, inventive script, to create delightful comedy. Through March 16. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — JJT

Rome John Harvey has written Rome, a world premiere and his tenth play for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company. Three men and three women discuss death, mutilation, body parts, murder and suicide; engage in flirtations; and plot seduction and midnight rape, done with such intensity that we realize this is also a continuing aesthetic debate, though macabre. We meet a duo, Charles (Bobby Haworth) and Fanny (Patricia Duran), and then a couple, George (H. R. Bradford) and Georgina (Christie Stryk), all about 30 and attractive. Another duo is Lauren (Amy Warren) and Thomas (John Harvey), who complains about the absence of wine as he chats up Lauren. George asks Charles about the best way (fasten your seat belts here) to seduce a child. This is an upper-class milieu, peopled with self-indulgent aristocrats, fixated upon sex, an Anglo-American version of Liaisons Dangereuses. An employee, Joseph, middle-class, is less protected, as we find out in the gripping finale when a female captain enters (Courtney Lomelo in a brilliant cameo) with two armed soldiers. Jennifer Decker directed superbly, with style and pace. Actor Jon Harvey is compelling in a complex role, and Warren is good, with interesting body language, as is Reeder, whose pantomime in a climactic scene is excellent. The four principals — Haworth, Duran, Bradford and Stryk — deliver sharply etched, fascinating portraits of deeply flawed individuals with overreaching needs. The Captain urges them to travel to Rome, whetting appetites with a vivid description of the pedophilia of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The play runs an uninterrupted engrossing 90 minutes. Brutal discussions deepen the mystery in a brilliant, wonderfully acted play that hurtles us into a world we seldom contemplate, providing riveting entertainment and an intellectual treat. For adults only, but don't miss it. Through March 22. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0499. — JJT

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, so authors other than the originator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, can use him. Playwright Katie Forgette has created a comedic mystery set in 1890 that involves the theatrical star Lillie Langtry, known as "The Jersey Lily." The other characters are Dr. Watson; Oscar Wilde, here Lily's constant companion; Mrs. Tory, Lily's housekeeper; Professor Moriarty, Holmes's archenemy; Shahab Pierre, a henchman of Moriarty; and Abdul Karim, an emissary from the Prince of Wales, with whom Lily once had a dalliance. The plot includes Pierre chloroforming and later abducting Lily, an incriminating letter, a forged letter, blackmail, a valuable necklace, lies, deceptions, professional jealousy, guns, knives, bondage, cross-dressing and a duel. Yet the play is primarily characters standing around while they chit-chat. Holmes impersonates a lady, veiled, but still revealing the chiseled features of actor Arnold Richie. Richie captures the look, but doesn't find the smug arrogance Basil Rathbone brought to the film role. Maud Ella Lindsley plays the Jersey Lily, conveying her beauty, poise and sophistication. Tad Howington plays Dr. Watson, communicating his infatuation with Lily so well it makes the character an idiot. John Mitsakis portrays Oscar Wilde, posing a lot, with a mannered delivery suitable for the role. Peggy Butler plays Mrs. Tory, the housekeeper, and I quite liked her. Shawn Havranek plays Moriarty well, with polish and an evil glint in his eye. John Smythe is excellent as Moriarty's henchman, finding his disgruntled malice. And Sam Martinez is credible as the Prince's agent, a cameo role. Doris Merten directed and has found some of the humor, and some engaging actors contrive to find the bright spots in a comedic drama that never quite takes off. Through March 22, Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West, 713-682-3525. — JJT

The Wizard of Oz The classic film has been re-created, with new songs added by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to the original songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Visual projections are important here, and they work: The tornado is gripping, and the flight of the flying monkeys is ominous and terrifying. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, joined by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. They meet the Wizard, are given a hazardous assignment and Dorothy returns happily to Kansas. Danielle Wade as Dorothy has a sweet naiveté and a wonderful voice, and can hold a note. Jamie McKnight as the scarecrow is brilliant in projecting humor, and his eloquent body language adds immeasurably to the fun. Mike Jackson as the Tin Man is wooden, burdened by a largely inflexible costume. Lee MacDougall plays the Cowardly Lion as not only a sissy but gay. The good witch Glinda, played by Robin Evan Willis, delivers authority and style, but without otherworldly spirituality. The Wicked Witch (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) relies on her actions, costuming and green complexion to create menace, but delivers some key lines flatly. Jay Brazeau plays the Wizard, and his video projections as Oz are very effective. The large ensemble is excellent. "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" is a hoedown to welcome Dorothy to Oz, distracting us from how tall the Munchkins are. Act One ends with the visually projected Wizard singing "Bring Me the Broomstick," which is a triumph. The familiar story is brought to exciting life onstage in a stunningly colorful production that captures much of the magic of the film and adds powerful projections to engage a delighted audience. Through March 16. From Theater Under The Stars, at Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-315-2525 or 713- 558-8887. — JJT

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