You'll Cry, You'll Laugh

Andrew Bovell's Speaking in Tongues is meant to be a thought-provoking piece that gets to the very essence of meaning. And as directed by Rob Bundy at Stages Repertory Theatre, the production seems bent on giving its audience a case of existential heebie-jeebies. It jumps right into some heady territory. The story opens on two pairs of lovers in their hotel rooms, each clearly looking for love in all the wrong places. The separate scenes play out simultaneously, with the dialogue overlapping, weaving together, becoming one, then separating out again. It's all very odd and serious. The overlapping dialogue is supposed to under-score the weird New Age way our lives are connected.

Then there's Kirk Markley's spooky set. Like a dark Miró landscape where the puzzling world is painted into lovely shapes that look vaguely organic and mystical, Markley's set is framed by an oval scrim and filled with curving eggplant-colored furniture. It suggests a preconscious, protoplasmic dream state, where the "mistakes" of the universe all make cosmic sense in the end.

You'd think that these images -- combined with a single, low and darkly foreboding note vibrating through the blackouts -- would be enough to develop this story into the epiphanic, take-your-breath-away moment this play is reaching for. You'd think that they would help get at the beauty and pain of life in all its gorgeous banality: love, betrayal, fear, lust, loss, self-absorption, even death.

But there is a strident and overwrought clumsiness in Bundy's rendering of these human moments that undermines the potential of this ambitious script. The overlapping dialogue never hits a natural rhythm; instead the four actors seem to be laboring to keep up with one another, to remember their complex cues. The energy that ought to be made exponentially larger by the four wanes each time the script returns to them picking their way through the mountain of words. At other times the actors do an awful lot of standing around in pools of light, speaking in monologues that are delivered with a seriousness that starts to sound almost monotone. To make matters worse, for some inexplicable reason, designer Rodica Mirea has dressed these four in aggressively unbecoming costumes.

The casting is odd, too. Alex Kilgore looks like a boy next to Christianne Mays, though the two are supposed to be married. Connie Cooper has difficulties making much out of her characters; though she does considerably better as the neurotic therapist who must counsel a woman she hates. Even Timothy Eric Dickson, whose charismatic sex appeal has jolted across the boards at both the Alley and Main Street Theater, flounders in the everyman role of a confused cop. But Dickson is double cast as a man accused of murder, and in that role he pounces on a juicy monologue in which he explains what really happened. In fact, this monologue provides the most energized few minutes of the evening.

The nose-to-the-grindstone efforts of this production create the veneer of poignancy. It's clear that we're meant to recognize and be affected by the terrible folly of humankind, to see the unconscious ways we are connected. But as told here, any deep meaning in Speaking in Tongues remains as elusive as the name implies.

The best thing about The Big Bang is watching Jimmy Phillips and Greg Gorden. They have so much fun singing and dancing through Theater LaB's production that they can't keep from cracking up each other, or the audience.

The original production starred the show's creators, Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham, as themselves: two hungry writers looking for backers for their show. In the simple setup, Jed (Phillips) and Boyd (Gorden) tell us that we're in the tchotchke-laden apartment of the well-heeled Dr. and Mrs. Sid Lipbalm, who happen to be away on a two-week vacation. Apparently we've been gathered together for a "backers audition" for a brand new musical called The Big Bang. With a cost of $83.5 million, a cast of 318 and a duration of 12 hours over four nights, the production promises to be the "most expensive show ever." Tonight, however, we'll just see the "highlights."

Once that's established, Jed and Boyd proceed to tell us the 90-minute musical version of the "entire history of man" that includes "Jesus!" "Hitler!" and "Cher!" There's a running joke involving the knickknacks stuffed in every corner of the living room: An upside down lamp shade becomes "Diva" Queen Nefertiti's hair. Umbrellas are made into a Southern belle's hoop skirts. A string of garlic becomes Eva Braun's golden locks; she sings "loving him is where I went wrong" in dirty jazz club style. Prickly as this might sound, Jed and Boyd are equal-opportunity offenders. Even Mrs. Gandhi and the Virgin Mary get a moment in the spotlight when they complain in song about the trouble it is to be God's mother. All silly camp, the show's best moments are its most outrageous.

Running about 30 minutes too long (that one joke gets old after a while), the show is held together by Phillips and Gorden. Whether they're leaping through Twyla Tharp-like dance moves, singing to potatoes in an Irish love song, or imagining Pocahontas and Minnehaha commiserating over drinks in a bar, these two clowns are full of infectious fun.

Speaking in Tongues Through May 25 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. $26-$35.

The Big Bang Through May 25 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 713-868-7516. $22.

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Lee Williams