84, Charing Cross Road. A fascination with the life of old books provides a lot of the charm of this play, which is based on the correspondence between New York writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, a London bookseller. An anglophile and lover of literature, Hanff longed to see England. Marks and Co., one of the row of book stores on Charing Cross Road, became her link to that country. In the early letters, she simply inquired about out-of-print books and kvetched about the difficulty of translating bills written in pounds, shillings and pence to dollars. Doel, ever affable and self-effacing, responded. Over twenty years, the two shared their understanding of books as treasures. In every other way, Hanff and Doel were hugely different. She was brash, loud and funny, he painstakingly polite. But clearly, the vigor and wit of her observations delighted him, just as his understated responses did her. Hanff planned a visit to London but, perpetually broke, kept putting it off. By the time she finally arrived in the city, Frank had died. Unavoidably, since it's based on letters, the play sometimes feels static or repetitive, but it builds to a touching and unsentimental ending, and Germinal has mounted an engaging production. Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through October 10, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com. Reviewed September 16.
The Chancellor's Tale. Everything about the this show screams Quality Production. Pay Attention. Serious Topic. And, indeed, this is a timely exploration of some of the issues currently tearing at the fabric of the Catholic church: homosexuality, the church's responsibility for the poor, the struggle of priests to contain their own sex drives. But the whole thing is so damply earnest and talky that any spark of life is extinguished. Every character is a stock figure embodying a concept. There's Ellen, the feminist theologian, who speaks of God as "she" and is in love with the radical priest, Frank. Frank cares for the poor and has recently witnessed the union of two lesbians, though we're never sure if he's motivated more by a love of humanity or by ego. Peter, a theologian, is a spokesman for all the church's most misogynistic and repressive principles, and Joseph, the chancellor charged with overseeing activities, is a father figure. Author Paul Mohrbacher obviously knows this world well, but his script is oddly passionless. Presented by Modern Muse Theatre Company through October 10. Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-780-7836. Reviewed September 30.
Company. This is a student production, which means the performances are uneven, but there's talent on the stage, and Stephen Sondheim's songs carry the evening. The protagonist, Bobby, is 35 and single. As the show opens, he's facing a birthday party, surrounded by loving friends -- all of them coupled. They bring him cake, sing to him and, in a series of short sequential scenes, demonstrate how their marriages work. There's also a trio of young women with whom Bobby has had sexual relationships. As the musical progresses, he moves from confusion and ambivalence to sadness and an acute sense of time's passing. Company is early Sondheim, less shadowed and complex than his later works, but tricky, delightful and clever. This is Friends with a brain, Sex and the City with a lot less narcissism. Presented by the University of Colorado Department of Theatre and Dance through October 10. University Theatre, CU campus, Boulder, 303-492-8181. Reviewed September 30.
The Fourth Wall. Playwright A.R. Gurney is angry. He considers the Bush administration a disaster; he condemns its boneheaded policies, its indifference to the plight of the poor, its pre-emptive war on Iraq. But Gurney is a kind-spirited, bourgeois, WASP kind of guy, and in this play, his anger is expressed through humor, metaphor, the protagonist's rather gentle reproaches and -- believe it or not -- the songs of Cole Porter. And it's all the more effective for that. Peggy, a middle-class housewife, is so distressed at the direction her country is taking that she redecorates her living room. She turns all the furnishings to face one wall -- the "fourth wall" -- in the theater, the invisible one that separates us from the actors. This blank barrier has a significant effect on everyone involved. The play is propelled as much by the author's fascination with theater -- what it is, what it can be, its limitations -- as by his political concerns, though ultimately, of course, the two themes mesh. A satisfying production of a funny, thought-provoking play. Presented by Nomad Theatre through November 7, 1410 Quince Avenue, Boulder, 303-774-4037, www.nomadstage.com. Reviewed September 23.
The Wall of Water. Playwright Sherry Kramer is a comic talent to watch. This play is farcical, swift and funny, but it touches on all kinds of major themes: madness and healing, naming and identity, anger and affection. It questions the existence of suffering and answers our yearning for religion by providing an onstage god -- a doctor transformed into a deity because he ate a dish prepared by a madwoman. The whole thing is a festering, bubbling, candy-colored stew of passion, confusion and wildly clashing desires. The plot: Four women live in a large, rent-controlled New York apartment. Meg wants to kill Wendi, who's mad; Judy is an allergist who believes we're all allergic to each other. Denice is probably the smartest of the four, but she's decided to live as a party girl and to sleep only with men whose photographs turn up in the New York Times. In the second act, the men appear, and the shenanigans get wilder. The pacing of the production feels a little off, but the acting is exuberant. Presented by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre through October 9 at the LIDA Project, 2180 Stout Street, 303-893-5438, www.hungerartists.org. Reviewed September 16.
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