- Good Male Bonding: Elizabeth R. Wood (left) and Nicole Perrone explore their masculine sides as Affleck and Damon in Matt & Ben.
The Gamblers — This one-hour romp, written by Nikolai Gogol and produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art, feels as modern as any production you're likely to see this year. In an adaptation by director Massoud Saidpour, The Gamblers focuses on professional card sharks, who foist treacheries that will not surprise anyone who has seen David Mamet's film House of Games. But what is extraordinary here is the seamless ensemble performance Saidpour and his live-wire cast pull off. The play takes place in a secluded card room run by the groveling and greedy Alexey (a pitch-perfect Allen Branstein), where slick Mr. Rov is planning to fleece some local players. As Rov, Terence Cranendonk literally squirms with sleazy glee as he wallows in his unapologetic fixation with cheating. There are surprises in store for Rov once the other players show up. Led by Mr. Tesh (an oleaginous Fabio Polanco), the card games lead up to the targeting of a young mark, the son of a millionaire who has left the premises. In perhaps the production's most sublime moment, director Saidpour choreographs a silent and seated blackjack ballet that captures the essence of a con in action. Saidpour animates Gogol's often humorous meditation on the craven, money-grubbing aspects of human nature. And in the process, the company conjures a taut and terrific stage experience. Through June 15, produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art at Kennedy's at Playhouse Square, 1518 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. — Howey
In the Garden — This ambitious but often didactic script by Norman Allen labors to blend spiritual observations, hard-edged rationality, and new age symbolism. But an impending slide into pseudo-intellectual irrelevance is happily blocked by the playwright's ability to craft realistic moments and some damn funny lines. And under Clyde Simon's direction, those lines are delivered with skill by a largely talented five-person cast. It's anchored by Gabe, who starts the play naked. But it's his soul that's laid bare. It's never made clear whether he is a student or a prostitute; homeless or rich; a kid, God, or the Devil himself. But he is undeniably erotic catnip for the adults who cross his path, including philosophy professor John (played with spot-on credibility by Vince DePaul), John's wife Muriel (the excellent Lucy Bredeson-Smith), and John's businessman-buddy Walter (a snarky Arthur Grothe). The play requires a Gabe who could believably generate total sexual obsession. That's exactly what we get — at least physically — in Tony Thai, a lean fellow of mystical mien who has a winning grin. Unfortunately, Thai isn't able to enunciate when speaking rapidly. Still, the play has some great lines, and when Garden blooms with wit, it fairly erupts. Through June 28, produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. — Howey
Matt & Ben — Some plays are critically shrugged off because they have a one-joke premise that's never fully developed. Nevertheless, one good joke can make your week. The gag at work in the two-person Matt & Ben is watching two women play screenwriters/actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck during the creation of their Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting. The old friends from Boston are holed up in Affleck's apartment, ostensibly laboring over an adaptation of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. That's when the GWH script falls from the heavens, through their ceiling, and onto the floor in front of them — completely written, with their names on the title page as authors. The one-act goes on to illustrate how uptight, focused Matt deals with slovenly, moronic Ben, and vice versa. Nicole Perrone is an oddly believable Matt, who's revealed as an earnest and talented guy, even in the flashback to his days with Affleck in high school. As Ben, Elizabeth R. Wood masters many dude-like mannerisms, but her over-the-top approach becomes excessively buffoonish. Director Dan Kilbane keeps the laughs coming, although the scene where the boys alternate reading Will and Skylar dialogue falls oddly flat. Even so, this joke has enough staying power to last the 75-minute running time. Through June 14 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. — Howey