HFAC's Farcical The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase

The set-up: Uncle George has invited relatives to the cabin for the weekend, and the reason for this is part of the somewhat thin plot - suffice it to say that the titular suitcase plays a large part in motivation. The play is a farce and there is ample humor - broad rather than subtle.

The execution: An entertaining evening awaits at The Money in Uncle George's Suitcase, with one truly gifted performance by Richard Hahn as Uncle George, but be prepared for some exaggerated performances that detract from the humor. Hahn plays a garrulous senior living in a run-down cabin in the woods, and brings an easy-going charm and well-honed comic timing to the role. Whenever he is onstage, and fortunately this is often, credibility is enhanced - I would love to see him as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The set by Lisa Garza (and what must be an army of assistants) is brilliant. It's truly remarkable in demonstrating the comfort that makes George love it and the primitiveness from which the relatives recoil. It has an artist's eye for detail and would do well, dare I say it, on Broadway - it is that good. Some of the supporting performances blend in well - Joan Fox as a sister is excellent and I kept wishing her role was bigger, and Karen Clayton was good in a minor role. Nora Hahn plays a niece and lets us believe in her, but Mario Garza as her husband gives a highly animated performance, as do Joshua Clark and Jillian Schertle as a pretentious married couple (the director, Tracy Clayton, shares in the program notes his view that comedic characters should be exaggerated). I did warm to all three, after I got over the initial shock. As the youngest relative, a grand-niece, Ronnie McLaren has a poise beyond her years, and I enjoyed her emerging from spoiled child to endearing friend to Uncle George.

The work is by prolific playwright Pat Cook, a Houston resident, and relies perhaps too strongly on elements that pay off less well, such as mystery-stew dinners and nighttime skulking - more inventiveness from the playwright would have been welcome.

The verdict: This is Clayton's first solo directing effort, and much of his work here is professional. He's succeeded in adding physical humor to the goings-on, which is much appreciated by the audience, but I would suggest that vivid, interesting characters can interact within the framework of ensemble acting. Hold the reins loosely and give the talent its head - but don't drop the reins. The ride is enjoyable, the pace usually brisk, and good-natured levity carries the day.

Through June 19, Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Road, 281-675-6374.

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Jim Tommaney