What is real human connection and what does it mean to be civilized? A.R. Gurney questions the drink ritual answer of upscale WASPs in his play-it-safe 1988 family profile “The Cocktail Hour,” sharply distilled in revival by the Huntington Theatre Company. Legendary King Arthur looked to an ideal world of respect for law and acts of chivalry and courage, the inspiration for “Camelot,” now in a well -sung if not quite ideal revival at the New Repertory Theatre. In terms of civilized theater itself, Oscar Wilde’s masterwork “The Importance of Being Earnest” continues to delight with its unmatched wit and wisdom, a unique combination richly staged by Moonbox Productions at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Buffalo native son John- making a 1970’s family visit- looks for understanding for his highly personal new play “The Cocktail Hour” from his parents but anticipates confrontation. His mother Ann wishes that he had written a ‘book’—meaning a novel- rather than a play, a genre which she sees as much more conducive to controversy and family embarrassment. More judgmental father Bradley greets John’s writing with disapproval and his son with tough love. His somewhat diffident sister Nina, while relatively unsatisfied with her own accomplishments, seems to lack full empathy for her brother’s situation.
Had A.R. Gurney fearless explored the family’s resentments and misgivings, “The Cocktail Hour” could have been as visceral in its own way as Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” Instead it still comes across as a pleasant but too neatly resolved play-with Bradley too abruptly coming to terms with John. Even so, gifted director Maria Aitken (“The 39 Steps” and “Private Lives” for Huntington) has smartly captured the attitude and antagonism that occasionally bring insight to Gurney’s dialogue. Richard Poe has just the right crustiness as Bradley, and Maureen Anderman catches Ann’s world –weariness. Anderman’s second act truth-telling with James Waterston as John is a moving high point. Waterston finds the right blend of whining and directness as John. Pamela J. Gray does her best with Nina’s underwritten frustrations.
Allen Moyer’s scenic design turns the family’s tastefully appointed 1970’s Buffalo home into a character in its own right. Gurney’s play needs more than just a splash of the set’s connoisseur quality, but Aitken and company make this revival a hearty offering.
Huntington Theatre Company, B.U. Theatre, through December 15. 617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org
If a grand Lerner and Loewe score beckons you, head to the Arsenal Center where the knights of Arthur’s Round Table are well served. Out director Russell Garrett has caught Arthur‘s idealism and the musical’s enjoyable evocation of his development from naïve young ruler to wiser but emotionally worn husband and friend. Benjamin Evett has all of Arthur’s heart and hope as pioneering Arthur.Multi-talented Erica Spyres sings with great spirit as Guenevere and briefly entertains as well on violin (which she plays expertly). Mark Koeck sings lyrically as Lancelot, though there are moments when his charisma ought to be even more pronounced- for example, with the musical boast “C’est moi” (“It’s I”). David McGrory needs to work with his orchestra on occasional missed notes.
New Repertory Theatre means to capture the dignity of Arthur‘s quest and the civilized fun of “Camelot.” Mostly it succeeds.
New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through December 22. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org
Moonbox Productions has a knack for capturing the soul of diverse modern classics. Their recent staging of “Of Mice and Men” caught the gutsy essence of John Steinbeck’s ode to true friendship.Now talented director Allison Choate has tapped into the sharp-eyed subtleties of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The result is the best local revival of this Oscar Wilde gem in many years. Ed Peed is a sublime hoot as outwardly tough-minded but somewhat soft-hearted Lady Bracknell. His demeanor and movement as the iconic Bracknell are alone worth the price of admission. Andrew Winson is delightfully adventurous as Jack, and Glen Moore wonderfully light-hearted as Algernon. Pormina Kirby has all of Cecily’s spunk, and Cat Claus makes a properly strong-willed Gwendolyn. What is being civilized? Moonbox has the effervescent answer.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through December 14. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
Before the more complex emotional sparring of “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts was exploring a violent family dynamic in “Killer Joe,” now in a riveting revival by Zero Point Theatre at the Arsenal Center. Company artistic director Emil Kreymer has tautly staged the warfare— verbal and physical—of the play’s unabashedly dysfunctional family while never losing sight of its strikingly dark humor and ironies. Sean Stanco is a menacing standout as Joe, especially in understated moments when the title policeman—who moonlights as a hired killer-—calmly outlines his and competing agendas with the chilling precision of a character in a Joe Orton play. Kelley Feetham has the right deceptive diffidence as daughter Dottie, who understands much more about family greed and antagonisms than her virginal past would suggest. “Killer Joe”’s candor —including nudity, seduction and spiraling violence- may be too much for some theatergoers, but Zero Point’s strong staging provides valuable insight into Letts’s sizeable talent.
Killer Joe, Zero Point Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, through December 15. 800-734-8903 or zptheatre.com
Lucille Ball was a uniquely brilliant comic Everywoman. The regrettably unfunny “ ‘I Love Lucy’ Live On Stage” tour at the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre is both an insult to her considerable talent and a waste of time for her legion of fans. Rick Sparks, who co-adapted this surprisingly inept show (with new material) with Kim Flagg, should have chosen such chestnuts as the grape-stomping and Harper Marx episodes, but even those seemingly foolproof segments would probably have flopped here. Sirena Irwin may resemble Lucy but her Lucy Ricardo lacks vitality. Bill Mendieta has the right enthusiasm as Ricky and sings convincingly with the capable musicians serving as the Ricardo Band.
Joanna Daniels tries to be animated as neighbor Ethel Marz, but Kevin Remington proves totally wooden as her husband Fred. Tyler Milliron(stepping in for Jeffrey Christopher Todd) has his moments as jitterbugging King Kat Walsh, but the nostalgic commercials –including Brylcreem and Mr. Clean- are forgettable.” ‘I Love Lucy’ Live on Stage “ is dead on arrival.
I Love Lucy Live on Stage, presented by Broadway in Boston at Citi Emerson Colonial Stage, Boston, through December 22. 866-523-7469 or broadway.boston.com
Can the kindness of strangers prove a life-changer? In Bruce Graham’s disarmingly sweet two character play “Stella and Lou,” romance itself has a tender ‘one more for the road’ in designer Bill Clarke’s sharply detailed barroom set. Under Charles Tower’s seamless direction, Bill Geisslinger as self-effacing widower Lou and Antoinette LaVecchia as spunky patron Stella keep the ups and downs of their emotional dance completely affecting. “Stella and Lou” is no “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but audiences should enjoy a ride with this Merrimack Repertory Theatre winner.
Stella and Lou, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through December 22. 978-654-5678 or mrt.org
David Coffee is celebrating his 20th anniversary playing Ebenezer Scrooge at North Shore Music Theatre, and the Dickens holiday classic is as fresh as the repentant businessman’s delight in Christmas. No one captures the gradual transformation of Scrooge as winningly as Coffee, whose final schoolboy giddiness about the holiday and life itself is magical. Out actor Russell Garrett brings touching concern to Bob Crachit in caring for physically challenged Tiny Tim, and Leigh Barrett has the right skepticism about Scrooge as Mrs. Crachit .
A Christmas Carol, North Shore Music Theatre,Beverly, through December 22. 978-232-7200 or nsmt.org
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