Pool is the drinking man's game of choice, for good reason: The more you drink, the better you play. And there's no better place to get a rack-chalk-and-break game on than Cue & Cushion. Though it's smaller than some pool halls around town, it boasts 16 pristine pro-size Brunswick tables, cue sticks of all lengths and weights, chalk for your hands, a well-stocked bar and a friendly staff that's not shy about pouring a heavy drink. Best of all is the price: Ten bucks gets you an hour's worth of play on a lush six-pocket green, and there's an outstanding happy hour from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. that won't break the bank as you're breaking the balls.
Many clubs open and close within a matter of a few years, but Rich's has been going strong for two decades. Despite being located, for many years, in a desolate area of town between downtown, Montrose and the Third Ward -- long before Midtown became a nightlife hotspot -- the two-story, warehouselike club has consistently drawn huge weekend crowds. Not only does it boast a stellar imported sound system, five bars, a large dance floor and a huge spiked disco ball, it continually brings in top-rated circuit DJs from around the globe. Then there's the crowd, where gender, sexual orientation and race are never an issue. Rich's is a Houston nightlife institution.
The Mink
When The Mink and its neighboring Backroom opened last summer, Montrosian hipsters finally had a good reason to hit up the burgeoning Main Street strip in between Wilbern and West Alabama. The Mink is housed in what once was Drink Bar, but owner/nightlife entrepreneur Tim Murrah gave the slender space a face-lift, bringing in a touch of class with lipstick-pink walls, strange artwork, a flower mural, dimly lit chandeliers, vintage couches and a small selection of wines. Then there's the Backroom, a minimal two-story lounge/dance club beyond the back patio. The first floor holds two bars and is drenched in dark brown and natural wood. Like The Mink, it serves as the perfect rendezvous point for friends, who can later shake it on the dance floor upstairs. Whether you're in the mood for low-key or something a little more upbeat, this coupled bar concept has it.
Before setting foot in Rowdy's Roadhouse, all we knew was it had a mechanical bull. We had to assume that its patrons were rednecks and/or refinery workers. We didn't know just how rural the surrounding area is (you can actually see the stars in the big Texas sky), and we didn't know that we'd meet the coolest bar owner around (Rowdy) and his absolutely charming wife, Kim. Aside from the fact that Kim is an ideal MILF, she makes every bar patron feel right at home. And it's Kim who'll give you the confidence to ride the bull. She gets our vote for the definitive bar mom not just because she's a wonderful host, but because her equally cute daughter sometimes slings the drinks.
Clubs in Midtown and downtown are so predictable: They usually have asinine rules and regulations, and there's almost always a queue of suburban dwellers paying upward of 15 bucks to get inside a club playing Top 40 hits, '80s throwbacks or hip-hop. Booooring. But a38 is changing the way we view Midtown nightlife, and it should have the competition worried. Although the bar's dress code disallows shorts (sorry, beach bums), there's never a cover (even when world-renowned DJs come to spin), you'll never hear hip-hop (but you'll hear stuff that isn't being played anywhere else in Houston), and the interior is sleek, modern and hip (without being too fancy and pretentious). The week kicks off on Wednesday with the anything-goes Boys & Girls Club night, then it's on to house music at Vic Vegas and Mr. Bristle's Pure Thursdays. Dustin Swint and Jeffery Mac close it out on Saturdays with a heavy mix of electro and house. The faces in the crowd change every night, so it's impossible to predict what kind of people you'll see. Just expect to have a blast and to dance your ass off.
Leave it to Jason Nodler, the long-absent founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, to return with a bang. After spending time working around the country, Nodler visited the Bayou City just long enough to create his best original show to date. Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston, told the story of a lonely guy longing for love. Cult musician/artist Johnston, who's been written about everywhere from Texas Monthly to The New York Times, suffers from severe bipolar disorder, and his musical world is inflected with mental illness and the extreme loneliness depression can bring. But the story Nodler constructed out of Johnston's powerful tunes was uplifting. There was a disarming innocence to the show and wonderful moments of strangeness -- angels, undertakers and Captain America all came together on the same stage. IBP and Speeding Motorcycle got a terrific write-up in The New York Times, proving yet again that Houston grows some original thinkers.
Given her bookishly shy demeanor and a willingness to step back and let others shine under the spotlight, Shannon Emerick hardly seems like much of a star. Yet when she moves across a stage, something in her deeply intelligent gaze takes over. It's difficult to take one's eyes away from her face, as it's so full of contradictions and subtle hues of emotion. Gentle and mesmerizing as ever, Emerick stole the show in Main Street Theater's production of Wondergirl, a profoundly sad tale about a woman who loses her daughter in the neonatal unit before ever taking the child home. As the plaintive mother, Emerick turned what could have been a maudlin melodrama into a thoughtful examination of the sometimes contradictory nature of modern medicine and the human heart. Emerick's quietly intelligent and intensely moving performance captured a profound truth in this ordinary tale. And when the lights came down, all we could do was weep for the mother she created.
Jeffrey Bean is one of Houston's most valuable theatrical treasures. A character actor with all the charismatic glow of a leading man, Bean makes just about every show he's in better. But last season's production of Martin McDonough's much-lauded The Pillowman gave Bean a chance to show us the depth and breadth of his talent. The plot focused on a horror writer who's taken into custody when kids start turning up dead. Bean played the writer's brother, Michal, with a hilarious and terrifying menace; the character was a startlingly powerful tour de force of a performance in Bean's capable hands. Brain-damaged and broken in every way possible, Bean's Michal was also clever enough to deliver a good joke. He hobbled around the stage with his twisted hands and blinking eye, troubled by an "itchy ass" and a devastating history. He was the sort of character who could haunt your dreams for days, weeks, even months after the stage lights went out.
Five years ago, Mildred's Umbrella started out in a cavernous, cold room, putting on original shows with virtually no set, no lights and no money. It's come a long way. The company is still putting on new work by resident playwright John Harvey, but MU has also added some terrific nationally known writers to its season. Marina Carr, Melissa James Gibson and Edna O'Brien were on the bill this past year, along with a fiercely avant-garde script by Harvey, featuring a woman who falls in love with a bull. And while the company still doesn't have a permanent home, the Little Troupe That Could has attracted actors and technicians who've worked at some of Houston's most well-endowed theaters. Best of all, the company, under the artistic direction of founding member Jennifer Decker, has kept its artistic integrity intact. The strange and sometimes head-scratchingly difficult work is never commercial and always intellectually challenging. MU has firmly established itself as an important part of what makes Houston's theater scene one of the richest in the country.
In this day and age of musicals that have little to do with artistic expression and everything to do with making buckets of dough, it's wonderfully refreshing to discover a song-filled night of theater that actually asks us to think. Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked, which ran last fall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, is that all too-rare musical that explores complex issues such as moral ambiguity even as it makes us laugh and cry at its delicious characters. Those characters include the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, whose motivations are explored as the imaginative plot slips elegantly across the witches' past, a history that includes their prep school days, where they learned all that magic.

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