— Paul Friswold
Brooklyn Boy Often the most gratifying theater sneaks up and stuns us. So it is with Donald Margulies' account of a traumatic week in the life of a novelist who sees his personal life unraveling even as he is finally receiving professional recognition and celebrity. Margulies has long been a writer of astute sensitivity; director Bobby Miller is in perfect harmony with the playwright's rhythms. This seamless production — pitch-perfect scenic design, costume design, you name it — is gorgeous to behold. Miller has allowed his actors the freedom to find their own characters, but they have found exactly what Miller wanted, thus delivering an evening of rare cohesion. They are all fine, and some more than that. Jason Cannon's dominant portrayal of the author is eloquently understated. R. Travis Estes is wrenching as a childhood friend whose ambitions have never extended beyond Brooklyn, and Paris McCarthy delivers a dazzling turn as a young groupie the novelist picks up after a book signing. Brooklyn Boy is one of the theater highlights of 2009. Produced by New Jewish Theatre through December 19 at Clayton High School, 2 Mark Twain Circle, Clayton. Tickets are $32 to $34 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.
— Dennis Brown
A Christmas Story Taken from the endearing 1983 holiday movie about Ralphie's pursuit of a Red Ryder BB gun, A Christmas Story has been mugged by a pedestrian adaptation. The incessant voice-over that works so well onscreen becomes tedious onstage. Any similarity between the joyously anarchic spirit of the original motion picture and this stolid stage version is strictly coincidental. Not that it matters to theatergoers; the Rep can't sell the tickets fast enough. An extra performance has been added for Sunday evening, December 20. Produced by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through December 27 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $18 to $68 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $10 and $15, respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org. (DB)
A Man for All Seasons Here is one of the great theater mysteries: Why is Robert Bolt's luminous 1960s account of the conflict between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over matters of faith and conscience so infrequently staged? Set in sixteenth-century England, when the king seeks to divorce his queen in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, Bolt's script is a triumph of intelligent storytelling. It introduces us to someone we meet all too rarely in the theater nowadays: a man of rare courage and quiet conviction. But there's far too much posing in this current staging (directed by Milt Zoth), as if the actors have been told they're in an Important Play. In the title role, William Roth's heart is in the right place, but he lacks gravitas and authority. Only Kevin Beyer as the villainous Thomas Cromwell is in total command. Produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio through December 20 at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue (in Forest Park). Tickets are $25 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org. (DB)
An O. Henry Christmas This modest evening comprises two one-act vest-pocket musicals, both based on short stories penned a century ago by the admired storyteller William Sidney Porter, alias O. Henry. The first, "The Gift of the Magi," is an adaptation of perhaps O. Henry's most famous tale about how a young married couple living in poverty manage to exchange Christmas gifts. The second, "The Last Leaf," a drama of life, death and sacrifice, is darker and more nuanced. Although Christmas as such does not factor into its telling, this might be the story that most merits seeing during the holidays, for its humbling message reminds us to keep the holiday season in healthy perspective. Performed by Avalon Theatre Company through December 20 at the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza), Watson and Sappington roads, Crestwood. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors, $18 for military veterans). Call 314-351-6482 or visit avalontheatre.org. (DB)
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You Christopher Durang's skewering of Catholicism would seemingly live and die on the strength of its title character, who alternately lectures and harangues the audience on the basics of the Church. Sister Mary Ignatius (Margeau Baue Steinau) is cheerful, enthusiastic and a little fuzzy on biblical matters, the type of nun who delights in sharing the bad news about the Good Book. Steinau leavens Sister Mary's love of misery with a subtle battiness; she's a flawed educator, but endearingly so. The show is riven by a similar contradiction. At the midpoint, four former students interrupt the teaching with a hilariously amateurish Christmas pageant, and the audience accepts it as farce. Each of those students then shares the failures of their adult lives — still funny, especially as Sister identifies their moments of human weakness as either venal or mortal sin, oblivious to the hurt she causes. But when Diane (Jenn Bock) shares her horrible recent past, she does so without a scintilla of humor (satirical, black or otherwise), and the show deflates into a bitter and mean-spirited puddle. Steinau and former pupil B. Weller do exemplary work to wrestle the show back into Durang's anarchic orbit, but the schism is too great. What began as a funny piece of irreverence now seems a sucker punch thrown either to shock (poorly) or antagonize the sort of audience member who protested the show almost 30 years ago. Presented by Stray Dog Theatre through December 19 at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org. (PF)