Eventide. This is a sequel of sorts to Plainsong, which the Denver Center Theatre Company produced two years ago, though the language is less evocative and the vision less far-reaching. In Plainsong, we learned of two elderly brothers, awkward bachelor cattlemen, who took in a pregnant teenager after her mother had thrown her out of the house. Now that teenager is a poised young woman with a two-year-old child, and she's about to leave for college. Tragedy soon strikes. One of the brothers, Harold, is killed by an angry bull, leaving his sibling, Raymond, to undertake the backbreaking work on the cattle ranch shattered and alone. The story that gives the evening much of its emotional juice concerns a mentally challenged couple, Betty and Luther, who are trying desperately to follow the instructions of their social worker and be good parents to their two small children. But Betty and Luther are one-dimensional in a way the characters in Plainsong were not. They represent pure pathos, just as Betty's uncle, Hoyt, represents pure evil. When the script does rise to the occasion, however, it beautifully communicates the slow, quiet pace of rural Colorado life, the specificities of socializing, cattle ranching and learning to know — and sometimes take care of — one's neighbors. All the threads weave together in the third act, partly because the drama of Betty and Luther's family comes to a head, even more because Raymond, in his own crusty and inimitable way, finally finds companionship and warmth. By the final scene, all of the elements have cohered, and we begin to understand that the only solace in an uncertain world is human kindness. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 27, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 18.
Habeas Corpus. Director Richard Pegg, who's English, completely gets Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, a nutty sex farce set in Hove in the '70s. Pegg knows that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of Englishman vacillates perennially between shame and lust. He also understands that Bennett's ironic melancholia is a defining feature of his work — but that doesn't keep the production from being hilariously funny. Dr. Wicksteed spends the evening trying to get his hands on Felicity Rumpers's bouncing breasts, but he isn't the only one pursuing her. Everyone wants her, and her formidable mother, Lady Rumpers, intends to see that no one gets her. Unfortunately, someone already has: Felicity's pregnant. She's looking for a face-saving marriage, and once Wicksteed's weedy hypochondriacal son, Dennis, informs her that he only has three months to live, she thinks she's found the man of her dreams. The cast performs with tremendous gusto and freedom, sometimes addressing the audience directly, sometimes breaking into song. Central to the production's success is Verl Hite's Wicksteed. His persona is in direct contradiction to his venality; he seems kindly, reassuring and dignified, exactly what you'd want in a doctor, and this makes his immorality doubly funny — and sort of sad, as well. As Lady Rumpers, Deborah Persoff has an indecent amount of fun, and she has the wit, skill and energy to make sure you do, too. We all end up dead, Habeas Corpus tells us, so gather ye rosebuds while ye may. And, while you're at it, grab all the breasts and bottoms you can. Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through February 28, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed January 28.
Girls Only. The trouble with Girls Only, a two-woman evening of conversation, skits, singing, improvisation and audience participation, is that it's so relentlessly nice. Creator-performers Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein have worked together for many years; at some point, they read their early diaries to each other and were transfixed by the similarities and differences they found in them, as well as the insights they gained into their own psyches and the travails of puberty. This theater piece was developed from that material — but not all of that material. "I purposely don't read every diary entry in the show, because it turns out I was kind of mean, and I don't want to be mean," Klein told an interviewer. But mean is funny, and when you cut it out entirely, what do you have to joke about? Girly pink bedrooms, purses, bras, skinny models in glossy magazines. Every time they tell a story with the tiniest bite to it, Gehring and Klein — both talented and appealing stage performers — move instantly to reassure us that they don't mean it. At one point Klein relates an interesting tale about how she came to possess the badly taxidermied body of an electrocuted squirrel as a child; the minute she's completed this funny, freaky moment in an otherwise highly predictable evening, she gives a pouty, don't-get-me-wrong grin and sweetly caresses the squirrel's head. There's enough good material here for a tight, funny, one-hour-long show, but this one stretches on and on, as if Klein and Gehring had been determined to throw every single joke and piece of shtick that occurred to them in the script. Presented by Denver Center Attractions through March 14, Garner Galleria Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed September 18, 2008.
Long Day's Journey Into Night. Everybody in Long Day's Journey Into Night has reasons for self-pity. Paterfamilias James Tyrone grew up dirt poor and uneducated, became a famous actor, lost his chance at a life of genuine artistry and sank into a grasping miserliness. According to family lore, it was his unwillingness to pay for proper medical care that condemned his wife, Mary, to a life of morphine addiction. Mary has her own grievances. As a girl, she wanted to be a nun, but she ended up spending her life in lonely hotel rooms while James toured. Their oldest son, Jamie, is a drunken layabout, filled with anger toward his father and his consumptive younger brother, Edmund, whose difficult birth caused Mary's addiction. All these people deal with their own suffering by attempting to destroy each other, and their summer house becomes a cesspool of hatred and poisoned love. There is a raw, bludgeoning power to the flood of words unleashed, but it's hard to care about any of the characters. Paragon Theatre's new venue poses problems. Rows of footlights shine distractingly into your eyes. Long Day's Journey Into Night is best suited for an intimate space, but here it's played in the round, and whenever a character has his back to you, you tend to lose the words. Still, Paragon has staged this quintessentially American piece with integrity, and the production is a genuine achievement. By the end of the very long evening, I was simultaneously sensing the surge and pull of the text and longing to run out of the theater and gulp in lungfuls of evening air. Presented by Paragon Theatre through March 13,1385 South Santa Fe Drive, 303-200-2210, www.paragontheatre.org. Reviewed February 18.
When Tang Met Laika. As Cuban-born Rogelio Martinez's play begins, Patrick, an American astronaut, is becoming acquainted with his Russian counterparts on the space station Mir, and — despite the fact that he's married and a father — starting to fall in love with Russian astronaut Elena. Their love story is the thread that holds this episodic piece together, but it lacks urgency, warmth and specificity. Having experienced the freedom and beauty of space, most astronauts find adjusting to everyday life on Earth difficult. Elena understands the psychic pull of exploration and the unknown; Patrick's wife, Samantha, whose primary solution to family problems is prayer, finds herself unable to connect with her increasingly withdrawn husband. When Tang Met Laika encompasses historical events, sets past against present, and attempts to synthesize the zeitgeist of the Cold War with contemporary reality. But although Martinez has a lot of interesting thoughts about a complex period, such thoughts only work on a stage if you dramatize them, and characters only matter to your viewer if they feel real — which these characters do not. Besides, it takes a poet to evoke the ineffable, and there's no poetry in the language here. Any beauty is provided by the tech: the ingenious set design and muted, evocative lighting. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 27, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed February 11.
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The World Is Mine. In The World Is Mine, Buntport gives us Eugene O'Neill in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy and thinking about beginning work on Long Day's Journey Into Night, the play that dramatized the life of the author's booze-drug-and-self-pity-soaked family, and which he famously said was written in tears and blood. The Buntport members treat this somber material with their usual fizz and humor, without in any way trivializing it. O'Neill's self-absorption is tackled head on: The entire set represents the inside of his mind as he ponders the set for his play, and the three other characters — all mustachioed like O'Neill himself — exist only as he sees them. The action takes place in a living room; a profile of Erik Edborg, who plays O'Neill, is mounted on the back wall, facing left. Opposite this, the same portrait has been flopped so it's facing right. We half notice that there are glasses everywhere, and once the action begins, we find that the place bleeds alcohol as characters pour drinks from almost every available object, from a chandelier to a telephone. O'Neill is being taken care of by a nurse, Cathleen, who reminds him of daughter Oona and whom he will transform into the Tyrones' dim, flirtatious Irish maid in Long Day's Journey Into Night — hence the absurdly high heels she wears along with her mustache. His wife, Carlotta, is on the scene, too, parading around in a succession of elegant dresses and surprising hats. The final character is Erland, come from Sweden to give O'Neill his 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. The World Is Mine raises the central question about Eugene O'Neill's artistry: the fact that his focus is so relentlessly, claustrophobically inward. And in their humorous and unpretentious way, the Buntporters suggest that when feelings run deep enough and genius is sufficiently capacious, personal obsession becomes universal and transforms into art. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through March 6, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed February 4.