Rover’s Kong’s Night Out is giddy, sublime screwball comedy


Myron Siegel is a lovable nebbish with a lot of heart. Despite his best efforts to produce a successful Broadway hit, lapses in judgment and cruel fate seem to conspire against him. His new show is about to open, a lot of money is on the line, and his arch-nemesis, Carl Dennam, is about to unveil a “Mystery Attraction,” guaranteed to fill the seats every night, and rob Myron of his desperately needed audience. His mother Sally is constantly deprecating him, comparing him to his father, who also lacked business acumen, and his niece, Daisy, is in town. Daisy is a small-town teenager, and the glamorous temptations of New York City in 1933, have caught her with their powerful spell. His wife Bertrille is actually….well, let’s just say she’s up to no good, and leave it at that.

Jack Neary’s Kong’s Night Out, a kind of homage to the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s (such as Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey) is chock full of wisecracks, shtick, banter and a healthy appreciation for the ridiculous. Warmth is mixed with cynicism, pratfalls with absurd conversations. One of the advantages of a 30’s comedy written in the 21st century, is Neary’s opportunities to sneak in suggestive gags: Bertrille: When are you going to untie me? Carl: Why? I thought you liked to be tied up. Kong’s Night Out is a supremely pleasurable experience, well-balanced between narrative and mirth. Neary doesn’t need to barrage us with an endless stream of jokes. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the frantic, “let’s throw in everything” approach doesn’t help with enjoyment, it’s like being stuck in the twilight zone with a comic who is constantly “on”.

Kong’s Night Out has a giddy, goofy appeal to it, with a cracker-jack cast. Cindy Kahn (as Sally, the Grandma) has a fabulous, raspy voice that could wither a garden of artificial flowers. Danielle Shirar (Daisy)with her marvelous, sunshiny grin, could be the next Zasu Pitts. Her optimism could clear off a merciless thunderstorm. John Hogwood’s Carl Dennam has a line of patter straight out of Phillip Barry or Dashiell Hammett, and keep you smiling all the way home from the theater. There’s a special technique to the back and forth of sharp-witted, rapid dialogue, and while some lines definitely had more of that distinctive pop, all-in-all, Kong’s Night Out was a sublime experience.

Rover Dramawerks presents: Kong’s Night Out, playing September 8th– October 1st, 2016. 221 West Parker Road, Suite 580, Plano Texas 75023. 972-849-0358.

Don’t miss CTD’s poignant, unforgettable, profoundly lyrical Dancing at Lughnasa


I’ve never cared for terms like “bittersweet” or “dramedy” as they obsess with labels, when literature resists such facile categories. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a quietly electrifying, intensely moving memory piece (in some ways like The Glass Menagerie) in which Michael, illegitimate son of Christie Mundy, remembers when his family was in the usual upheaval, just before everything went completely sideways. Michael is the narrator, and in retrospect realizes that for all the brouhaha, the five Mundy sisters had each other, Michael, and the daft Uncle Jack, a missionary priest back from Africa.

Dancing at Lughnasa begins when Michael sets the story in motion, sometimes speaking as the seven-year-old boy, more or less oblivious to the deeper issues affecting the adults. His kites are decorated (perhaps unwittingly) with pagan gods. Indeed, eldest sister Kate, a devout Catholic in a Catholic household fights a persistent battle against (what she perceives as) the encroaching influence of paganism and idolatry. While she is vigilant and impassioned, she is not exactly a tyrant. She barely notices the kites, but forbids her sisters from attending the Lughnasa Festival, most likely because of its pantheistic underpinnings. When Uncle Jack returns from his mission in Africa, and begins to reveal his fascination and appreciation for those vivid, elemental religious practices, Kate’s worst nightmare takes shape. It’s hilarious, but we still understand her concern.

So much genius in Friel’s play. Dancing at Lughnasa mocks easy answers to the quandaries that plague the Mundy Sisters, while making us ache for them. Because we hate to see these vigorous, vibrant women hurting. Friel never leads us by the nose, he’s too subtle for that. But the celebratory nature beneath the travails and mischief, that we see so gloriously expressed in the title event (if only in the Mundy kitchen) leaks and brims and gets beneath our skin. The friction between sober devotion and pagan life-affirmation fuels this exquisitely realized, truly miraculous story of familial grace. Please understand. After years of seeing theatre, I know how difficult it is to capture authentic, overwhelming emotion in a way that actually reaches the audience. And stays with them. Directors Miki Bone and Frank Latson, and this inspired, precise, utterly involved cast have managed to do just that. Tears and mirth and implacable humanity. Do not miss this marvelous opportunity.

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas presents Dancing at Lughnasa, playing September 9th October 2nd, 2016. 5601 Sears Street, Dallas, TX 75206. (214) 828-0094.

Theatre Britain’s The Hollow tawdry, tempestuous fun


Sir Henry and Lady Angkatell are hosting guests for the weekend. Relatives and friends will be staying over to schmooze, dine and gossip. Not surprisingly, most (if not all) of them have overlapping pasts. While he perpetually snarls and barks at his wife Gerda, Dr. Cristow is having an affair with Henrietta and still carries a torch for screen actress, Verona Craye, his ex-fiancee. When Cristow is shot dead, Detective Penny and Inspector Colquhoun have their pick of viable suspects.

More often than not, playwright and novelist Agatha Christie rises above the obvious choice of killing the least popular character. But then, she practically invented the dinner party/murder genre, so she’s probably entitled. Not surprisingly, there are numerous red herrings, stolen kisses, tawdry trysts…to keep the intrigue level high and the audience absorbed. While Christie’s dialogue in The Hollow may sometimes feel less genuine than rhetorical, her undeniable gift for creating vivid, fully realized characters is what sets her writing so high above the endlessly pedestrian copycats that have been pilfering her successful archetype for years. They may create a variety of types, but rarely move beyond cursory gestures or demeanor.

Lady Angkatell (played by Cindy Beall) is undoubtedly the most entertaining character in this narrative. She casually makes the most outrageous observations, but somehow her charisma redeems the frank remarks no one else could get away with. If she said your new blazer was perfectly ghastly, you’d laugh right along with her. And she’s so absent-minded, when she tells the Inspector she can’t remember where she was at the time of the murder, he can’t believe she’s dodgy. Then there’s Midge, who refuses to coast on the family fortune, even though it means the degrading lot of working in retail. Henrietta is a sculptor who uses her talent to disclose unspoken truths about those closest to her. Christie paints an elaborate mural. Every detail doesn’t advance the murder plot. Her characters are not mere pegs on a game board or caricatures to be ticked off a list.

Theatre Britain always offers the audience a multitude of pleasures, from the precise British dialects, accurate sets and lavish gowns, to the splendid revelations of English culture and class protocol. [Wouldn’t I love to see them do Pinter?] The Hollow is certainly up to their usually impressive standards and a delightful excursion into shadow and mayhem.

Theatre Britain presents The Hollow, playing September 2nd-25th, 2016. Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202.

Third Annual LGBT PlayPride Competition intriguing mix of wicked satire and allegory

3rdlgbt2Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s Third Annual LGBT PlayPride Competition is an intriguing mix, with an interesting approach. Alexandra Bonifield directed all six pieces, as opposed to using different captains for different ships. Some plays were forthright (if perhaps simplistic) while others obtuse, and not always easy to process. Some had an LGBT subtext while others were narratives which just happened to include gay characters. Another important difference: this year the playwrights win money (instead of “donating” their award) so lets get out there to Jefferson and Tyler in Oak Cliff and vote, vote, vote.

Copeville, the first play, by mystery playwright Addison DeWitt (yes, yes, yes, from All About Eve) is a memory piece, told from the view point of a young girl (“Narrator”) about her Uncle Berdie. Her Uncle (a Native American) runs the only grocery in a very, very small town in Texas. The girl loves to hang out at his store after school, happily taking care of her small tasks, and munching on candy. Berdie’s rich, genuine humanity, is evident in everything he does. He never turns down those in need of food, never judges others, takes joy in being kind. One day he reminisces to his niece about a friend who was “two-spirit,” sharing his tribe’s enlightened appreciation for someone who evinced non-binary gender identity. In this way he explains his own difference.

There are two ways to think of Copeville. We can bask in the pleasure of understanding that even in the Bible Belt, there are communities that recognize the value of every life, and simply care for one another while leaving God’s domain to God. The other is to speculate the possible outcomes had our hero not been quite so noble, or the question of his orientation beyond ignoring. Perhaps Berdie was doing the best he could with subjugation. Copeville though, does manage to pitch a canny scenario (with no violins or roses) for those who actually enjoy living in a climate of warmth and mutual respect. It never feels contrived or didactic. So I’m going with the former.

Ben Schroth’s You hear that? finds married couple Charles and Daniel settling down in bed for the night. Off and on they hear noises and voices, unsure what they mean, or what exactly is going on. Perhaps another couple making love? Or prowlers? Or gossip? One of Schroth’s great strengths is his subtle ability to imbue ordinary situations with extraordinary insight, the dialogue emerging from Charles and Daniel’s quandary a lens to explore their attachment. Daniel and Charles are just like any other newlyweds. They tease and flirt and josh and grouse. They give each other grief and cuddle. The punchline about their queer marriage is that it’s not especially sexy or remarkable. Like most marriages, it’s just sexy and remarkable enough.

Honestly by Caroline Cole is an epistolary story told by email, texting and voicemail. Perhaps it’s a fable on the irony that despite increasing methods of communication, the quality of human connection is quickly diminishing. Not once do we see any of the characters in the same room with each other. Georgia Bardman (a thuggy lesbian) has formed meaningful relationships with several women, who help her through a horrible bout with cancer. Honestly has a kind of witty cynicism to it, a reflection on the discrepancy between what we need to see and what’s there. Cole might be commenting on lesbian stereotypes or maybe just the pathetic trap of infatuation. Maybe same-gender sexuality here is merely parenthetical.

Ruth Cantrell’s Stall Tactics makes hay of the recent, ridiculous public bathroom debate, pairing Mattie Lou, a right-wing, conservative, gay-hating harridan and an old high school friend, Bev. When Bev attempts to use a unisex bathroom in a department store, Mattie Lou blocks her, proclaiming she must not participate in this recent concession to the godless “He/Shes.” Mattie Lou is hysterical, obnoxious, offensive and stupid. Those are her better qualities. On the downside Stall Tactics is a spoof, so it’s over-the-top, and prolonged. (Though I won’t deny it’s gratifying to see a self-righteous, Bible-thumping snot exposed). On the upside, Stall Tactics is often very, very funny and Cantrell uses the opportunity to consider the pathology behind Mary Lou’s toxic tirades.

If Fate Steps In, by Sierra McCarley, examines the time-honored riddle of the role of destiny or choice when it comes to romance. There’s a metaphor involving skin-markings (tattoos?) which leads one to think this may be speculative fiction. Jude and Emerson are on a fix-up date, and struggle to decide whether they are slaves to the cosmos or actually want each others’ company and comfort. I admire McCarley’s originality and desire to tantalize, but I’m not entirely sure the quirky milieu adds a lot. The resolution is smart and satisfying.

Shane Strawbridge’s Widgets is an illustrative parable in which two colleagues enter into a heated argument when it comes to mixing red widgets with blue widgets or packaging them separately. Strawbridge’s strategy enables us to see how preposterous this bellicose behavior truly is, by applying insane logic to inanimate objects. Widgets turns on two metaphors, the widgets, and a bouquet of discarded flowers, salvaged by the untainted perception of the manager’s young daughter. It might be a bit self-consciously enlightened, but Alexandra Bonifield helps with a fairly light touch.

TeCo Theatrical Productions presents: The Third Annual LGBT PlayPride Competition, playing September 15th-25th, 2016. 215 South Tyler Street, Dallas, Texas 75208. 214-948-0716.

Echo’s ‘night, Mother a haunting, somber nocturne


Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother is a difficult piece. Painful, frustrating, frank in its depiction of the broken world and Jessie’s decision to take her own life and share this plan with her mother, Thelma. Thelma’s attempts to dissuade Jessie are like tiny beacons of hope that nonetheless fail. Norman baptizes us in Jesse’s despair, it’s a bit shocking how plain the details and resigned she is to finally have some hand in her personal narrative, even if the outcome seems the very definition of a Pyrrhic Victory. Like, say, Leaving Las Vegas, where the protagonist is distracted just long enough to let us ache for some kind of reprieve, Mama desperately tries to convince Jesse there must be another way, and we, too, are caught up in the need to salvage this lamb, too discouraged to do anything but lay her neck upon the stump. It’s hard going, and Jesse’s calm, disaffected sense of purpose soaks into us like wet smoke. It’s chilling, really, how Marsha Norman pulls us into gradually into the abyss with Jesse, without, say, the bleakness or ballast of an Ingmar Bergman film. It’s as if the cheery, coziness of the familiar, domestic nest with its warmth and reassurance is there to throw the awfulness into high relief.

On an ordinary Saturday night, Jesse prepares to give her mother a manicure. She goes over her lists to make sure Mama has her groceries and candies to nibble on, and everything she needs when she will no longer be there to take care of her. Pretty early on, she tells Mama she will not be around much longer. At first her mother thinks she’s joking, but she catches on. After awhile Jesse’s refusal to debate, her explanation that life offers no respite from the steady succession of disappointments, soaks into our marrow like delicate voodoo. When Jesse runs to her bedroom and slams the door, Thelma bangs and pounds, hysterically. It goes through you like an ice dagger.

Jessica Cavanaugh (Jesse) and Amber Devlin (Thelma) are understated and authentic as they invite us into the relationship a mother and daughter create when they live together as adults. Jesse’s self-esteem has been so diminished over the years that any attempts to steer her vessel to benign waters seem pointless. We keep wanting her to climb into Thelma’s lap until that radiant embrace melts away all the woundedness and grief. Ironically (though I’m sure Norman knows) Thelma cares so much, it perhaps blinds her to the best strategy to save her daughter. She doesn’t know to translate her deep maternal love into purposeful action. Norman seems to be finding that Jesse’s one-way ticket to silence comes from her connection to Thelma, that even running away from everything she knows would be better than turning out the lights. Jesse doesn’t know how to be “selfish” though it just might save her.

Director Christie Vela, Cavanaugh and Devlin have collaborated to bring us this impeccable, somber nocturne. What glorious talent. Like me, you may find yourself grieving for that touching, inconsolable lamb.

Echo Theatre presents ‘night, Mother, playing September 8th-24th, 2016. Bath House Cultural Center, 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, Texas 75218. 214-904-0500.

Don’t miss Uptown’s insanely funny Toxic Avenger

toxic1Melvin Ferd III is something of a nebbish, as if his name wasn’t clue enough. He’s harassed and attacked by bullies. His mother does nothing but criticize. Even his best friend, a blind girl named Sarah who works at the library in dystopian Tromaville, New Jersey, isn’t interested in him romantically. When he confronts Mayor Babs Belgoody with dumping toxic waste, she sics her goons, who drop him in a barrel of green, gooey toxic waste and leave him for dead. And thus is born: The Toxic Avenger, the morally ambiguous and perhaps ugliest antihero since The Incredible Hulk or The Thing.

Ironically, Melvin’s transfiguration enables him to win Sarah’s heart, when he saves her from rape and perhaps even death. He can easily defend himself and wreak revenge on those who made him miserable, his ghastly reaction to the chemical poison soup is all to the good. The only downside is, he’s beyond repugnant. He roars like a dinosaur. He would scare a javelina. But he’s also able to pursue the villains with aplomb, and Sarah is smitten with him. However, Sarah keeps insisting on feeling “Toxie’s” face, and Mayor Babs has discovered his one “kryptonite,” so there’s certainly no guarantee of a happy ending.

Created by Joe DiPietro (Book and Lyrics) and David Bryan (Music and Lyrics) and inspired by a Marvel comic book hero, The Toxic Avenger Musical is a marvelously perverse, crass and vile comedy that is very clever and hilariously cynical. You could suggest that certain comic book heroes experience a triggering event that unleashes their shadow side (id) say, like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, but even The Dark Knight has a code of honor. When Melvin turns into The Toxic Avenger he revels in tearing off limbs and decapitating those who annoy him. He even plays the drums with a couple of disarticulated arms. None of the characters are especially noble (Sarah’s OK) but it’s clear that Melvin’s advantage comes when he embraces his basest instincts. When Melvin’s mother sings to convince Sarah to reconcile with “Toxie” she explains that (in one way or another) “All Men Are Freaks.” The other women eagerly agree.

Along about 1975-1976 the premiere of Saturday Night Live convinced a lot of people that humor and tastelessness were not mutually exclusive. Of course this has always been true. If you know what you’re doing, and you’re talented, you can make your own rules. The problem with this “revelation” was that suddenly everyone thought they could pull it off, competent or not. So we subsequently wound up with a lot of wretched “comedies” that would make Charles Manson seem like a laugh-riot.

The difference is that DiPietro and Bryan are brilliant and they know how to create an organic, buoyant narrative, consistent in demeanor. What they have accomplished is not at all easy (and with the help of Toxic’s phenomenal, frantic, acrobatic cast) have managed a spoof rich in subtext and audacity. The Toxic Avenger Musical lolls in its excessive degeneracy. It’s so, so, so bad and deranged and wrong, wrong, deliciously wrong. And it’s funny as hell. Closing weekend guys, hurry over.

Uptown Players present The Toxic Avenger Musical closing this Sunday, September 11th, 2016. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718.

Onstage in Bedford’s Virginia Woolf, outageous, rollicking black comedy

vwoolf1Arguably, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of Edward Albee’s most (if not the most) accessible plays, at least on its face. A late night “party” of four in which George’s vicious, castrating wife Martha invites a new faculty couple over for a few drinks, turns into an all-night dog fight, barely concealed by the veneer of polite behavior. Set in the midst of New England Academia, at an Ivy League University, Virginia Woolf sends Nick, a new Biology teacher, and his mousey wife Honey (Robin Clayton) into the merciless lair of George and Martha. Martha and George are a middle-aged couple grown far too comfortable with thrashing one another, while Nick is the Adonis of the Biology Department, intelligent but ultimately shallow. The younger couple (well, Nick, actually) makes the mistake of confusing George and Martha’s sparring for harmless banter. George is in love with his own pontificating and rhetoric, and Martha has a kind of tough dame charm, but the vitriolic pair are just warming up.

George (and Albee) make much of Nick’s godlike beauty and background in Biology to address the idea of eugenics, though that word is never used. Just as true today as it was in 1962, exquisite, ageless beauty eclipses everything else. You can lack talent, experience, depth, even charm, but if you’re gorgeous the world will build you a marble temple. No one is more painfully aware of this than George, who hints (none too subtly) at a comparison between Nick’s Aryan appeal and the Nazi thirst for creating a master race. Gradually, George uncovers Nick’s utter lack of character and waits for his opportunity to go for Nick’s jugular. To be fair, Nick (Brandon Loera) dismisses George’s attempts at man-bonding pretty early on.

Martha (Rose Ann Holman) is the daughter of the University President, and though she may be 50 + and zaftig, she is still voluptuous and attractive. What Albee describes as the “earth mother.” Because no man, including George, could ever live up to the pressure of being married to the President’s daughter, she and her dad treat him with contempt and nasty mockery. Her flirtations with Nick are not remotely subtle, and she simply assumes that wife Honey is too dim to pick up on it. Throughout the evening Martha takes sadistic digs at George’s self-esteem, gleefully berating him for his countless failures and lack of pride. Martha is shameless and audacious, goading George with no sense of proportion or decency.

Edward Albee has always basked in his extravagance of language, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? aside from being a detailed depiction of a long-married couple, feeding off each other’s humiliation, is a critique of vapid American values. George (Seth Johnston) a brilliant, witty, Ph.D. is threatened by a Biology teacher simply because he’s handsome and virile. As they explain to Nick the weasel, “You’re either a Stud or a Houseboy.” Nothing in-between. You’d certainly think that in an institute of higher learning, looks would count for very little, but injecting Nick into the mix only throws George and Martha’s wretched cosmos into further chaos. Why does George stay with Martha? Why do Nick and Honey continue to endure this succession of degrading blows until the sun comes up? Why does Martha despise George for his tenderness?

The cast is brave, adept, dogged, heroic, deeply involved. Like The Lion in Winter, and August, Osage County, this content is exhausting under the best of conditions. The two key roles were replaced a week before opening, through no one’s fault. These things happen. So all this means that yes, there are a few problems, though none of them fatal. One rarely sees Virginia Woolf staged (at least around here) because frankly, it’s like trying to land Moby Dick with a fishing pole. Even if you do everything right. Albee indulges his eccentricities like nobody else (genius is allowed, I suppose) and the script is a constant hopscotch of tone and shtick. I have always admired Onstage for its daring, vision and professionalism. Bring a flask and go spend the evening at Onstage’s dazzling, breathtaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Onstage in Bedford presents Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Playing September 2nd-18th, 2016. 2819 Forest Ridge Drive, Bedford, TX 76021. (817) 354-6444.

“I dreamed a dream, that made me sad…” Locklear’s Dreamless at The Ochre House

dreamless1The Ochre House has a penchant for exploring malaise, rage, profound disappointment. Sometimes the venom eclipses other elements but that’s allright. They earn it. Written and directed by Justin Locklear, Dreamless is reminiscent of The Iceman Cometh in its consideration of living happily and how hoping for a better day affects that. In Eugene O’Neill’s Iceman, Hickey tries to disabuse his friends of their romanticized slant on the world, believing delusions only lead to pain. But, of course, pessimists and optimists share at least one idea, that their own personal version of life is closer to the truth. And Hickey only becomes awakened to his change of attitude when he discovers his wife has been unfaithful. So then the question becomes: is it better to risk trusting others or embrace a kind of practical skepticism?

Claire (French for clear) the hero of Dreamless, runs The Clean Plate Diner with her brother John, who came on to help after their father died. John deferred to the needs of his family over personal ambitions. The people who work at the diner are a sweet-natured bunch, the cook, waiter, bartender…..All the characters (except The Cat) wear sad clown makeup and more or less endure John’s sneering, nasty attitude. John is not such a tyrant that he won’t allow contradictions or criticism, but his resentment of anyone’s cheerfulness or warmth is oppressive and constant. While Claire is undeniably gentle and encouraging, John is a cantankerous snot, looking to extinguish as much joy as he possibly can. When he actually shows enough ethical backbone to acknowledge Claire’s extraordinary talent, it makes him (it seems) more disgruntled than ever. Unfortunately, such is her self-sacrificing inclination, that Claire won’t be happy if John isn’t. His pouting ruins it for her.

By removing and restoring the white greasepaint at strategic points in the narrative Locklear may be commenting on the ridiculous plight of indulging those who would involve us in their delusions. The strength of his script is its disambiguation between pessimism and actuality. Sometimes negativity can be just as illusory as daydreaming. Sometimes it can save us from the terror of leaving our comfort zone behind. The Ochre House very often inhabits a kind of gauzy fugue state that divides the abyss from a world brimming with diaphanous, radiant light. Dreamless stuck with me much, much longer (thank you, Ben) than I expected it to, and I recommend it highly with one proviso. Brother John is such a vile, vicious viper (despite all attempts to temper this notion) it was difficult for me to appreciate the rest. That being said, Dreamless is worth your time, and then some. The Cat (by Trey) is inspired and sublime.

The Ochre House presents Dreamless, playing August 20th-September 10th, 2016. 826 Exposition Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-826-6273.