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Everything in the Garden Comes Up Roses at Theatre Southwest

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The setup:

Edward Albee's extremely Albee-esque, American adaptation of Englishman Giles Cooper's snake-in-the-garden black comedy is, perhaps, the most satisfying evening in the theater in a long time -- and not just at Theatre Southwest, which is having a banner season, but anywhere else in town. Garden is a ripping good show all round, and one of Albee's most entertaining, if almost completely unknown, works.

The execution:

Eyebrows arched high like St. Louis's Gateway, hair elegantly coiled in tight waves, impeccably dressed and poised to a fault, Jackie Pender-Lovell, as Mrs. Toothe, drips sophistication. She likes her whiskey with "one cube," and doesn't brook interference against her tidy plans she has already put into operation. She is utterly in control and utterly controlling. You don't mess with her. She is fascinating to behold and terrifying to contemplate.

Mrs. Toothe arrives unbidden to the middle-class suburban home of Richard and Jenny (Kevin Daugherty and Elizabeth Marshall Black, perfect exemplars of your average American Albee couple) while they're in comic throes, bewailing their lack of money. Just a little more green would change their lives for the better. It's all about keeping up appearances in '60s American suburbia. No more scrimping on cheap cigarettes just to get the sales coupons. Maybe they could afford actual Russian vodka, not some knockoff local distillery? Wouldn't a greenhouse be perfect for her? Wouldn't a power mower be just the thing for him?

Called the "fairy godmother," Mrs. Toothe, prim and proper, settles in on the couch, crosses her legs just so and proposes an offer to Jenny she can't refuse. You want money, she purrs. Pender-Lovell's voice oozes honeyed charm and class. Come and work for me, and your wildest dreams will come true. Problem is, husband Richard is stuck in middle-class morality and will not abide his wife working. Yet Mrs. Toothe's proposal is awfully tempting.

Crisp and efficient, she is Albee's dea ex machina. This caustic, sophisticated woman changes everything. When the money does roll in -- anonymously in a $4,900 package addressed to Richard, stuffed into the clock, secreted in the desk, found in the sewing basket -- Richard gets suspicious, then apoplectic. Good wife Jenny (amazingly handled by Black with equal amounts dizziness and aplomb) is too honest to deny that, yes indeed, the money is hers, or theirs, and that she's earned it by moonlighting for Mrs. Toothe. What's wrong with that? How she's earned it is the payoff.

Using Cooper's 1962 play, Albee, the dean of living American playwrights, makes it uniquely his own: bitchy, mordantly comic, utterly theatrical, painful, poignantly true. Under Mimi Holloway's precise yet easy direction, the ensemble cast sparkles as if lit from within. They play Albee like Coward, which brings out the wicked fun, but when he turns serious, they know exactly how to land the punches for maximum damaging effect. When a rather unknown play by Albee gives off such sparks, you know something is right.

The verdict:

The play blooms at Theatre Southwest. Notorious for his prickly sense of self-worth and as stolid guardian of his wayward children, especially the unappreciated ones like this play, Albee, I think, would be immensely pleased to see how Everything in the Garden grew up to be so fine and fair...and crooked.

Edward Albee's mischievous dissection of the American dream runs through April 28 at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Purchase tickets through e-mail at tickets@theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505. $14-$16.

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