The Drowsy Chaperone. The role of the Man in the Chair is the spine for The Drowsy Chaperone, and the primary reason that this lighthearted, inconsequential and very silly show is so much fun to watch: Without him, it would just float off into the ether. But with him, we're invited in on the joke, and his trenchant observations provide a sometimes tartly refreshing frame. This man is middle-aged, gay and slightly melancholy. He adores 1920s musicals, and to cheer himself up — and explain his passion to us, the audience — he decides to play a disc of a purely fictive show called The Drowsy Chaperone. And that's when everything changes: platforms swivel, walls move, doors open onto unexpected places, and a swarm of hyper-energetic actors invades his nondescript apartment. A sendup of the shows the Man loves, Chaperone includes big, sparkling numbers; lots of tapping and singing; moronic plot twists; vaudeville routines; puns; a pretty ingénue; a handsome leading man; a vampy, drunken chaperone; a clownish, self-infatuated Italian; and a couple of Mafia guys who are more ridiculous than menacing (in fact, they're disguised as pastry chefs). There are also a couple of digs at the provincialism and unconscious racism of early musicals. Boulder's Dinner Theatre has mounted a wonderful production of the show, with a very strong cast. Brian Norber gives the Man a weary intelligence, pitching the role precisely between cynicism and wonder. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 13, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed March 15.
Chess. The semi-operatic Chess doesn't have a lot of dialogue, and the music ebbs and surges continually like the sea — sometimes lyrical, witty or moving, and sometimes just empty wind. To follow the plot, you need to hear the lyrics — and at the Arvada Center, where this production originated, the sound was cranked so loud you couldn't. But now the show is moving to Lone Tree, and perhaps the sound will be better there. Chess is the result of a collaboration between lyricist Tim Rice and composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA. The theme is ambitious, an exploration of the Cold War, with the game as both plot lever and metaphor: Boorish American wunderkind Freddie meets Russian virtuoso Anatoly at the World Chess Championship in Merano, Italy. The two men are closely watched by their minders — Molokov of the KGB and Walter, undercover for the CIA. The two security agents are dabblers in the murkiest of political arts, and the poison they represent infects individual lives as much as geopolitics. Freddie also brings with him to Merano his Hungarian-American lover, Florence, who promptly falls in love with Anatoly. While it's nice to see a musical that has a bit more than sex, escapism and the joys of self-affirmation on its mind, there's also some fairly intense silliness: the head of the International Chess Federation, for instance, who hovers above and around the action like the epicene Emcee of Cabaret; an infuriatingly self-pitying song in which Freddie howls about his miserable childhood as an excuse for being such a shit. Still, director Rod Lansberry has brought clarity and very fine voices to a work too messy to ever be a complete success, too good to be allowed simply to die. Through April 29 at Lone Tree Arts Center's Main Stage Theater, www.lonetreeartscenter.org. Reviewed April 12.
Heartbreak House. George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House explores the decadence of the English upper classes in September 1916, just before the German zeppelins began their bombing sorties, with the extended family of retired seaman Captain Shotover fiddling away merrily while Rome burns. Or rather flirting, teasing, seducing, holding forth, mocking and generally entertaining themselves. Shotover runs an eccentric household in a ship-shaped house with dusty corners. He peers into the surrounding countryside through a telescope, drinks rum all day and keeps a store of dynamite at hand. But though he's extremely dotty, he's also deeply wise. As the play opens, Ellie Dunn has arrived at the invitation of Shotover's daughter Hesione, who wants to talk her out of marrying Boss Mangan, the bloated capitalist her unsuccessful businessman father has selected for her. Ellie is half-persuaded; she has recently fallen for an abundantly mustached teller of tall tales. At which point Hesione realizes that Ellie is describing her own husband, Hector, and bursts into delighted laughter. Hesione likes to do a bit of seducing herself. The play doesn't quite hold together in terms of plot or emotional impact, but deep feeling isn't what you usually look for in Shaw. The joy of his work lies in language: the wit and brilliant aphorisms, the eloquence, the way he upends expectation and comes at convention sideways. But Shotover is one of the most interesting characters in dramatic literature, and if the play does have a heart, it lies in the relationship between him and Ellie Dunn — who turns out to be far more complex and interesting than she at first appeared. This well-executed and entertaining production reminds us that Shaw's opinions are still entirely relevant, his brilliance is indisputable, he remains one of the funniest playwrights ever — and his humor can still draw drops of blood. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 29, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed April 12.
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The Two of Us. This group of four short plays is Michael Frayn's earliest theatrical work. Its genesis came in 1970, when he submitted Black & Silver for an evening of one-acts, was rejected, and decided to write three more pieces and create The Two of Us. The first playlet, the original Black & Silver, follows a couple trying to recapture the magic of their Venice honeymoon three years later — only now they have their squalling baby in tow. They try to sleep. The baby wakes and cries. They mutter and argue, rock the cradle and change the diaper. There's a lot of stumbling about in the half dark and unfunny tumbling over chairs. The second play is quite wonderful, however: A young man shows up at the home of an older woman he met at a party the night before, determined to move in; she's puzzled, irritated, anxious to get rid of him. But by the time he's through weaving verbal nets of crazy connections and bits of popular science, and expounding on his bizarre philosophy — in which people not only say the opposite of what they mean, but actually feel the opposite of what they think they feel — she's getting a bit swoony. In the third playlet, a man expresses himself almost entirely through his foot, while his exasperated wife carries on a monologue with an imaginary person and gets drunk on imaginary booze. The final offering concerns a disastrous dinner party. The evening is uneven: flashes of brilliance, stretches of boredom and moments of sheer exhilaration, but you can see in this skilled production the techniques and ideas that will inform Frayn's body of brilliant mature work. Presented by Miners Alley through May 20, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, www.minersalley.com. Reviewed April 19.