UpStage's Festival of Comedy, a Triumph of Inventive Writing Over Hit-Or-Miss Acting

The setup: UpStage Theatre's Second Annual Festival of Comedy allows local playwrights to strut their stuff in one-act plays that are comic, yet stay safely within the boundaries of "family-oriented" appeal.

The execution: The writing shows imagination and comedic verve, suggesting good things to come from these four talented playwrights. The acting that brings these plays to life ranges from sophisticated, nuanced and thoroughly professional to amateurish and embarrassingly inept. The good news is that much of the writing is so very good that it survives even this handicap.

The Parking Lot by Alan Johnson is well-directed by Ann Richie, and it wittily and subtly reimagines some fairy tales in a good cop/bad cop vernacular. An excellent cast does it justice. The Bright Side of Being Blue by Carl Williams poses the dilemma a manager faces when his once-hot country-and-western singer is too happy to sing the blues -- the concept is amusing enough for Williams to develop this into a full-length play. Sean K. Thompson both directed and played the manager -- his acting is inventive and skilled, but as a director he failed to solve a casting problem.

The Idiot's Guide to Dummies by George Rapier presents a daughter and her date coping with her amusingly off-beat and highly dysfunctional parents, and the writing is fresh and comically insightful. Family Matters by Jeffrey Strausser is a bit of a muddle as four adult daughters arrive to take their parents out to dinner -- they are a bit apprehensive as their mother is determined to start traveling the world and their father is determined to reinvent Jackie Gleason and become a stand-up comic. His jokes are corny as a corn-dog, and I loved all of them. The parents are wonderful characters and I want to meet them again, but the play might do with fewer daughters, and its "message" might be delivered with subtlety instead of a sledgehammer. It's well-directed by Arnold Richie, artistic director of UpStage Theatre.

Chief among the more inspired and highly talented actors were Norris Thompson, Joseph Moore, 14-year-old Xavier Lehew, Sonia Kronberg, Cristina Gibson, Arnold Richie and Anne Richie, artistic director of UpStage's Children's Theatre.

The verdict: Despite some flawed performances, the four plays provide an evening of irreverent humor, inventive ideas, psychological insights and generational conflicts. They are a most welcome escape from the summer heat -- and the air-conditioning works beautifully.

Through Aug. 27, UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard, 713-838-7191.

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