Top Shelf Shorts from NightCap Theatre Displays a New Company's Talents

The setup:

Houston's new NightCap Theatre follows its entertaining production of The Coitus Plays in February with Top Shelf Shorts, ten brief plays that showcase the writing talents of its two founders as well as those of 18 actors and six directors.

The execution:

An almost empty stage with a few chairs and a table is enough to establish a setting, and permits the audience to concentrate on the worlds being created -- some humorous, some poignant. Peter Wittenberg, one of the two playwrights, strikes pay dirt with $20 Bowl of Soup as a young man wakes a buddy to tell him about how the girl of his dreams has rejected him. It's rich in humor, with sharply drawn characters, and brought to comic life by Justin Doran directing the excellent Kyle Cameron and Dayne Lathrop. Wittenberg's comic strength holds up in his Standing Up to a Bully, well directed by Tom Stell, with a nuanced performance by Brian Heaton as the bully and Michael Chiavone with brilliant reactions as the nerd.

Wittenberg has a considerable range, and in Accused he tackles the difficulties in a custody battle for a young girl, virtually a monologue delivered with compelling passion by Brian Heaton as the unmarried father, with Amy Warren ably playing two minor roles, and well-directed by Leighza Walker. In Guayaba Tree, he captures the poignant gap between a warm and simple mother, with fond memories of her orphaned youth, and a son too interested in being a provider to smell the roses. Dolly Fisher is sweet and genuine as the mom, and Robert Meza captures the distraction of the son, well-directed by Tal Gribbins. In The Cabin, directed by L. Robert Westeen, a father and son meet, and we quickly see the affection between them, but there is a surprise in store as well. Tal Gribbins portrays Pop and Michael Chiavone the son; both are excellent.

The other writer and NightCap co-founder, Eric James, centers on the complexity of relationships. With In the Morning, we meet an academic man and his younger lover at a time in their lives when the ashes of passion have cooled. Tal Gribbins directed and plays the teacher and Joshua Costea the younger man, and they illustrate the chilling effects of a dream receding. In his Untitled (Self-Portrait), well-directed by Robert L. Westeen, an older man and woman share a museum bench as they admire a Van Gogh, and the encounter captures both the loneliness of those whose partners have died and the capacity of art to fascinate and heal. Zona Meyer is good as the woman, and Robert Lowe is wonderfully moving as the man. In Dinner First, a rent boy is interested in getting down to business while the john would prefer a little conversation first; James explores the humor of differing priorities and creates vivid characters. It's directed by Leighza Walker; L. Robert Westeen plays the john and Silvano Thomas portrays the rent boy, and all do well.

James's Toil & Trouble has the witches from the Scottish play squabbling like it's a bad day on The View -- it has some amusing moments, but might play better with witches who are less fresh-faced and beautiful. I liked less well Blood, wherein a gay man is unable to donate blood in an emergency, as being a shade polemical and one-sided.

The verdict:

NightCap Theatre keeps its momentum going with this production of ten plays, almost all powerful and amusing -- rich in talent, and a delight to savor.

Top Shelf Shorts continues through August 4, NightCap Theatre at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 281-788-2319 or visit the company Web site.

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