Arts » Theater

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

The Clean House -- It's safe to say that the central conceit of Sarah Ruhl's play is not cracking any new ground. Centered on a Brazilian immigrant maid who is trying to conjure the perfect lethal joke, it's a collection of unlikely situations stitched together. Matilde (Ursula Cataan) is the young live-in maid hired to scrub and vacuum the home of Lane, a sleek surgeon who lives in an all-white Connecticut house. Unfortunately, Matilde finds the drudgery of housework depressing, so she often drifts off into reveries about her parents, "the funniest couple in Brazil." As luck would have it, however, on one fateful day in the recent past, Matilde's mother died laughing at a joke told by her husband, and he was so shocked he fatally shot himself. We are asked to believe that this tragic death-chortle-plus-suicide launched their daughter on her quixotic quest, but the character of Matilde is not written humorously. You'd think a person so committed to humor would have some hilarious takes on her boss and the chilly, colorless space they share, but that doesn't happen. For all of The Clean House's staging imagination and some genuinely amusing lines, the whole premise seems a bit too far-fetched. But a splendid cast under the skillful direction of Davis McCallum keeps the proceedings light and, for the most part, deliciously diverting. Through March 25 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Christine Howey

Red Light Winter -- Adam Rapp's play is a squalid little exploration of the back alleys of young, unrequited love. Even though the script careens wildly from lean and painfully pointed dialogue to lumbering passages, the three performers and director Sean McConaha manage to fashion an evening of theater that sticks with you, even if you wish it wouldn't. Two thirtyish American college chums, Matt and Davis, are sharing a nasty hotel room in Amsterdam's red-light district, where introverted Matt is futilely trying to write -- when he's not battling diarrhea or halfheartedly attempting suicide. Meanwhile, freewheeling Davis -- a successful literary agent -- is sampling the carnal pleasures of sin city. Smoking a joint and swigging vodka, he's a nonstop, unfeeling joke machine, making fun of Matt's intestinal troubles and pushing the smaller man around at will. It turns out that Davis has a secret agenda for Matt -- in the person of Christina, a French whore Davis picked out of one of the storefront windows on the street below. But it's clear that there's more going on here than one buddy helping another. The first half of the show sparks and sizzles with playwright Rapp's incendiary and gleefully obscene dialogue, easily outdistancing the plot wrinkles. But much of the promise engendered in act one is squandered when the scene shifts back to Matt's apartment in New York City a year later. Through March 25 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 East Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317 -- Howey

Thoroughly Modern Millie -- Based on the not-so-classic movie of the same name, this airheaded musical, directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, brings a whole new definition to the term "broad acting." While there's nothing inherently wrong with jumping on every gag with the size-48 brogans of a circus clown, you need a cast that can sustain that manic level of overreaching and still make the evening palatable. And that's where the Carousel crew falls a bit short. As for the story line, it's pure Broadway schmaltz: Millie, a rube from Kansas, shows up in the big city in the flapper decade of the 1920s, with her eye fixed on meeting and marrying a sugar daddy. She winds up at a rooming house owned by a suspiciously friendly Asian woman, Mrs. Meers, who, it turns out, shuttles the girls in the front door, finds out which ones have no family or friends, and then sells the grown-up orphans into Shanghai slavery as prostitutes. While ducking Mrs. Meers, Millie gets a job at an insurance company and sets her talons for the pompous boss, Trevor Graydon. But he falls instead for Millie's pal, Dorothy Brown. That's just the beginning of the confusion in this froth that involves a supposedly penniless loser, Jimmy Smith, who is really rich, and Mrs. Meers' two sons, who have their own agendas. Through April 28 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae -- The trouble with some of the hackneyed historical images of African Americans is that they can be so endearing, they camouflage the pain and hurt they cause. That error is corrected with a vengeance in this Karamu show. Structured as a quasi courtroom drama, it's set in the hold of a slave ship, and the defendants are two iconic representations of black womanhood: the good-natured Mammy and the sexually smoldering Safreeta Mae. Playwright Karani M. Leslie has imagined a stellar premise, and though some parts are overdone and redundant, there are scenes that are absolutely corrosive in their candor. Errin Berry is soft and sensuous as Safreeta Mae, looking like she'd just been ripped from the cover of a pulp novel about the Old South. Equally compelling is the testimony of Mammy, portrayed with understated power by Morris Cammon, who reveals a side that totally belies her shuffling, obsequious image. But perhaps the best performance is turned in by Michael May, a black actor who plays all the male roles. Through March 25 at Karamu Theatre, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7077. -- Howey

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