The Designated Mourner The apocalyptic world of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner is a place without poetry, art or wisdom. And in Catastrophic Theatre's production of this dark tale, it is also cloyingly claustrophobic. The group has staged the story in a small living room that holds only a few dozen audience members. The tiny, close space makes the play feel gut-wrenchingly visceral. You're aware of people breathing all around as you watch the characters onstage move through a series of monologues about a political landscape where no one can be trusted and the government is both dangerous and omnipresent. The play is also very funny, in an utterly bleak way. Carrying most of the weight — and humor — of the story is Jack (Greg Dean), the designated mourner of the title. "A former student of English literature who went downhill from there," he is a walking, talking testament to everything that has gone wrong in this world. The play tracks Jack's descent into anti-intellectualism, which actually ends up saving him from the horrific fictional government of the story. For a time, Jack is married to Judy (played here by a beautifully regal Mikelle Johnson), a woman who loves "the beauty of silence," concerts and poetry. Judy is the daughter of Howard (Paul Menzel), one of the last men on earth who can read John Donne; he's still around because he is a friend of the old political regime. The characters speak straight out to the audience as they discuss art, television, pornography and politics. As the characters talk, they also make vague references to a government that doesn't approve of intellectuals, and the story about repression and the ultimate annihilation of "everyone on earth who could read John Donne" eventually overtakes the play. Directed by Jason Nodler with heart-crushing grace, and beautifully acted by this smart cast — Dean gives the performance of his career here — the troubling play puts forth a bleak worldview that doesn't seem all that far-fetched. Through June 5. Catastrophic Theatre Office, 1540 Sul Ross, 713-522-2723. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. — LW
Intelligence-Slave Kenneth Lin's deeply moving Intelligence-Slave tells the story of Curt Herzstark (Andrew Weems), a concentration camp prisoner who invented the first handheld calculator. Taken from Buchenwald because of his engineering ability, Herzstark perfected his most famous invention while working at an ammunitions factory for the Germans as an Intelligence-Slave. His calculator saved his life. The SS officers hoped to give the Führer the completed invention once the war was over. Knowing they would kill him once the invention was finished, Herzstark kept telling his captors that he needed more time to figure out how to make the calculator subtract. The play examines the way Herzstark used his beautiful mind to save both himself and the soul of a boy soldier sent to oversee and learn from him. Directed with steely nerves by Jackson Gay, the world premiere of Lin's tale at the Alley Theatre, where the show is currently running, makes for a gripping, suspense-filled evening that deepens into a richly felt morality tale with each new scene. It takes place at the end of the war, and everyone is terrified in this world, including the German officers (actor Todd Waite is unnervingly effective as an officer who is somehow both wholly evil and wholly human). Still, Herzstark, especially as played by the quietly powerful Weems, manages to keep his wits and his heart. When the Nazis send Finn Frey (Steven Louis Kane), a 14-year-old boy soldier, to watch over him, Herzstark becomes the boy's mentor, teaching him how to think and how to feel. The story is filled with thoughtful ideas, and this production with this strong cast (including James Belcher as a Nazi and Chris Hutchison as a prisoner) brings these powerful ideas to shining life. Ultimately, this is a play about the power of the human heart. Despite the depravity of his surroundings, Herzstark remains wholly human. His mind and his heart are what make his story so important. Through June 20. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700. — LW
Young Frankenstein Scary! Electrifying! Shocking! No, not the new musical from Mel Brooks, but the historic ticket price charged for the Broadway run — $450, tops. Even with inflation, the show's nowhere worth that. After the phenomenal success of his first Broadway show, The Producers, nothing afterwards could've lived up to the hype. You know you're in trouble when the most memorable tune in the show is the 1929 Irving Berlin classic "Puttin' on the Ritz," just like in the Brooks movie from which this is adapted. But the film had a swanky black-and-white look, a manically frazzled performance by Gene Wilder and sets literally unearthed from Universal's properties graveyard that had been built for James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. The film was also a goofy homage to horror movies along with its Borscht Belt spoofing. The musical, presented here by Broadway Across America, coarsens everything, turning the movie's gentle naughtiness to smut and its satire into hit-you-over-the-head blowziness. If you think a joke is funny, wait until you hear it delivered by the cast at full volume. They scream their lines at us as if that's going to make them funnier. All the film's highlights are here: Frau Blücher's name still invokes frightened whinnying from the horses, Igor's hump keeps moving about from one side to another and Elizabeth falls for the monster with an ecstatic rendition of "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," but it all seems like rote and not a lot of fun. Even the showbiz pastiches are tired and second-rate. The cast and technical crew are a shimmering who's who from Broadway's gold coast (actors Roger Bart, Cory English, Brad Oscar, Beth Curry, Joanna Glushak; director Susan Stroman, set designer Robin Wagner, costume designer William Ivey Long), but their talents can't resurrect this sad, beat-up corpse. For all its shameless silliness, The Producers worked wonderfully because it, at heart, had one in Max and Leo's sweet relationship. This time, the heart of the musical needs to be transplanted. The patient's dead, doctor. Through June 6. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — DLG
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