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Two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week

2nd Star Productions does a lot right in staging Funny Money by Britain’s master of farce Ray Cooney. The pace of the frenetic comedy never drags. Actors are superb and spot-on in accents. Director Fred Nelson uses the stage for maximum clarity in this Gordian knot of accidents and lies. Jane B. Wingard’s set and Linda Swann’s costumes feel right. The problem is, it’s a farce. Or maybe that’s just me.
    If your thirst for confusion borders on the masochistic, if you relish sexual innuendo, if you appreciate blubbering drunks and screaming matches, if you’re either hearing impaired or wish to be, then this is the show for you. Just don’t expect the Americanized Chevy Chase film version.
    How many one-dimensional characters and compromising situations does it take to make a British farce? The more the merrier.
    Decorous accountant Henry Perkins (Gene Valendo) accidentally swaps briefcases with a criminal. Finding himself a trillionaire, he plans to abscond with the money — only to be thwarted at every turn. Darling but boring wife, Jean (Mary Wakefield) crashes from teetotaler to drunk the moment he tells her to pack. Crooked Inspector Davenport (Michael N. Dunlop) observes Henry’s giddy trips to the pub loo where he counts the money, follows him home on suspicion of solicitation and is shuttled off to the dining room to ponder a lie while he awaits his bribe. Bill the Taxi Driver (Zak Zeeks) arrives early with the airport shuttle only to be repeatedly sent to the curb to ponder more lies while he awaits his fare.
    Plainspoken Detective Sgt. Slater (Robert Eversberg) reports from the morgue that Mr. Perkins was found murdered, clutching a briefcase containing papers and a cheese and chutney sandwich. Thus, a family member must identify the body, but not until Sgt. Slater is shuttled off to the kitchen to ponder more lies while he makes tea for the grieving widow. Dinner guests Vic and Betty (John Wakefield and Samantha Feikema) take sides in the Perkins’ domestic dispute, culminating in a wife-swapping plan; Betty longs to travel and Jean refuses to leave, but Vic is a good sport and even gets himself embroiled in the deception. And then there is Mr. Big (Ronald Araújo), a drug lord who keeps calling for his burfcrse until Bill the Taxi Driver blithely gives him the address.
    Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him? How could two detectives in adjoining rooms hear hysterics without suspecting something? How does every compromising situation involve a cabal under the covers on the couch, convincing detectives it’s all one big bedroom romp?
    Despite the script, performances are commendable. Valendo displays priceless calm and trance-like incredulity in the midst of chaos. Zeeks is audacious and sexy. Dunlop is believable as the cop-on-the-take. And Feikema sizzles in her quest for adventure.
    Funny Money is two hours of anarchic cacophony and classic pop that is guaranteed to prolong the craziness of your week and generate a few belly laughs to cheer the winter blues.

Playing thru Feb. 16. ThFSa 8pm & Su 3pm at Bowie Playhouse, Whitemarsh Park: $22 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

Four fishing flicks to see you through February

When you can’t go fishing, you might as well watch a good fishing movie. Here are four sure to hook you.
    Captains Courageous was filmed in 1927 and plays as well today as it did almost 90 years ago. Based on the 1897 novel by Rudyard Kipling, Captains details the adventures of Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Batholomew), a privileged and spoiled young man recently expelled from his exclusive boarding school.
    Taken by his father on an overseas business trip as a form of counseling, Cheyne is swept overboard off the coast of Newfoundland. Rescued by a passing Grand Banks fishing schooner, the youngster is unable to convince his rescuers to interrupt their journey to return him to port. Instead, he must accept a low-wage job to cover his keep until the boat’s scheduled return three months hence.
    Cheyne soon finds that bragging, cheating and complaining do him no good among rugged fishermen. Under the guidance of Manuel, a Portuguese-American seaman played by a brilliant Spencer Tracy, Cheyne learns the way of life at sea and the skills of a fisherman.
    Blossoming under the harsh conditions, the lad changes before our eyes into an admirable young man. He is eventually reunited with his father, who is overwhelmed that the son he believed lost at sea is still alive but even more so at the maturing changes his son has undergone.
    Fast forward to 1944 for To Have and Have Not, a multi-layered World War II film set in Fort de France, Martinique. On the first level it is a conflict story. Humphrey Bogart plays an American sport fishing captain (Henry Morgan) who, plying his trade on the island, gets involved smuggling for the French resistance.
    Cover girl model Lauren Bacall, in her first movie role at age 19, was brought in to spice up the movie’s romantic interest, thus a love story is the second level of the film. Off-screen she and Bogart actually fell in love, the third level. And at that point in the film the celluloid begins to smolder.
    Add in some great character acting by Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael, and you’ve got a hooker of cinematic art — You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?
    1958 gave us another fishing classic, The Old Man and the Sea, again starring Spencer Tracy. Taken from a 1952 novella that won Ernest Hemingway the Pulitzer that year and led to a Nobel Prize, the film retains many of the book’s internal (and classic Hemingway) monologues.
    A Cuban fisherman in his waning years hooks a giant blue marlin far offshore and battles him for three exhausting days. See the film to find out what happens next. If you already know, view it to renew your experience with both Hemingway and Tracy, two masters at the peak of their craft.
    The best recently released fishing movie is 2011’s odd Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A wealthy Yemeni sheik falls in love with fly fishing for salmon while living in England and decides to bring that experience to the desert-living people of his native land.
    He and his attractive British financial consultant manage to finagle the cooperation of Britain’s leading expert on salmon, icily played by Ewan McGregor, who reluctantly signs on to the seemingly impossible challenge.
    From there the film becomes a love story, a political satire and a charming work of art. If you’ve ever suspected the sanity of fly anglers, this film will confirm your suspicions.
    Enjoy this quartet these cold winter nights and replay them any time the fishing is slow.

Kevin Hart steals the show in this cop comedy

Ben Barber (Kevin Hart: Grudge Match) is a tough, well-respected soldier nicknamed the Black Hammer — in virtual reality. In real life, Ben is a school security officer with a loud mouth and a big heart. He spends his day breaking up petty teenage fights, mentoring kids and dreaming of becoming a real cop.
    But Ben is a man with a plan: He’s been accepted to the police academy and plans to propose to his girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter: A Madea Christmas). Blocking the way is Angela’s domineering older brother James (Ice Cube: 21 Jump Street), already a real cop.
    Ride along with me for a day, says James, to prove yourself as a man and a cop. Ben leaps in like a puppy, but James is setting him up for failure, sending him to confront a biker gang, a violent drunk and a mouthy kid.
    But a real case gets in the way, forcing a real team effort.
    Filled with silly gags and dubious plotting, Ride Along isn’t a great work of filmmaking. It is, however, a fantastically funny piece of cinematic fluff, thanks in large part to a great leading performance by comedian Hart. Director Tim Story (Think Like a Man) sets up a few interesting action pieces, but he’s smart enough to know that this film is Hart’s show.
    Hart’s fish-out-of-water routine works well as he fumbles through dangerous scenarios and bizarre situations. In a performance worthy of Lou Costello, Hart makes Ben a man in flux. He’s capable of bravery and cowardice, easily transitioning from hysterics to calm competence.
    As the Abbott to Hart’s Costello, Cube has an easier job. He snarls through the movie, playing the straight man with a tough veneer. Ice Cube has never been noted for his acting skills, but he is a decent foil to Hart.
    Ride Along is a rare modern comedy, deriving its humor from traditional slapstick rather than the gross-out humor that’s put Sandler and Apatow on the map. While it’s still not droll drawing room humor, it’s a nice change in tone.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 99 mins.

How do I love thee? Siri, count the ways.

People walk the streets talking aloud to their phones, wrapped up in their own electrical worlds. Digital interfaces have nullified human interaction.
    Living a quiet life of digital obscurity is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix: The Master). A ghostwriter of handwritten correspondence for a faceless corporation, he pours over the personal lives of people who would rather play with their phones than write love letters and thank you notes.
    On the tail end of a divorce, Theodore is testing the dating game. But people are difficult; videogames and technology are easy. To streamline his life, he buys a new artificial intelligence operating system. Thus Theodore meets Samantha (Scarlett Johansson: Don Jon), who is his new operating system.
    Think of her as Siri with a sexier voice.
    She begins as an assistant, sorting Theodore’s email, suggesting music, keeping him on time for appointments. But her helpful nature and apparent curiosity about Theodore put her on more intimate terms with the shy, wounded man.
    Are we only a few iPhone updates away from romancing a programmed intelligence?
    Director Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) constructs a strange but plausible future that seems no further than 10 years ahead.
    His cinematography and style enhance the world of Her, which looks like an updated Apple store. Lines are sleek, clothes are cute and everything has a touch of whimsy. Her is a beautifully realized film filled with visual interest, not one frame wasted.
    As Theodore, Phoenix is a jumble of isolation and adulation. He gives a believable and impressive performance as he falls in love with a phone, crooning, dancing, whispering the sweet nothings you expect from a man in love. As he’s often the only physical presence, his hold on our attention is remarkable.
    Johansson does masterful voice work as Samantha, imbuing a four-inch metal box with warmth and soul as she challenges Theodore to go out in the world and celebrate the beauty of life.
    But is it love?
    No matter how charming and unique Samantha seems, she is a program generated to please Theodore. His choices are the basis of her personality, meaning that there’s an even darker layer to the story: Is it Samantha’s choice to love Theodore? Jonze doesn’t answer that.
    A brilliant look at our deep and often dysfunctional relationship with technology, Her is a film that all you smartphone users should see.

Good Dramedy • R • 126 mins.

Bad Dates is a good night out

In theater terms, when an actor talks directly to the audience, it’s known as breaking the fourth wall. When Janet Luby does it in Bay Theatre Company’s latest, she’s not so much breaking a wall as she is opening a door. Through that door we join her as she shares her life, her attempts at love and a lot of laughs.
    Bad Dates is a one-woman show written by playwright, screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck about Haley Walker, a 40-something single mom and restaurant manager in New York who is jumping back into the dating pool. Her first love, besides her unseen 13-year-old daughter Vera, seems to be shoes, as the four closets filled with them in the nicely rendered set attest. Keeping up a constant chatter as she models several pairs and several outfits, Luby engages us stream-of-consciousness about Haley’s failed marriage, her job, her daughter, her shoes and her frustrating, funny and sometimes heartbreaking dates.
    Luby has a knack for this type of theater, having been so effective a couple of years ago in Becky’s New Car as the bored and tempted wife who seeks understanding from the audience. Her charm, timing and physicality keep things moving through the 90-minute performance (plus a 15-minute intermission), even rising above the script’s brief but uncharacteristic dip into the maudlin after a particularly promising beau proves a no-show. Luby is such a strong actress that we also get evocative and quite funny caricatures of the other people who inhabit her life, from the gay law professor to the bug guy to the Romanian Mafioso who owns her restaurant. A one-woman show, yes, with so many personalities.
    As director Richard Pilcher puts it in his program notes, Bad Dates is not a chick play. It’s funny, it rings true and it certainly comes from a woman’s point of view. But in Luby’s capable hands, it’s a story that both sexes will enjoy. If my car is any indication, it will also generate quite the drive-home conversation.

Set designer: Ken Sheats. Costumer: Maggie Masson. Lighting designer/state manager: Eric Lund. Props: JoAnn and Mike Gidos. Sound design: Natalie Pilcher.
Thru Jan. 26. FSa 7:30pm; Su 2 pm at Chesapeake Arts Center, Brooklyn Park: $24+ $4 surcharge; rsvp: www.chesapeakearts.org.

Is the theft of your story a crime?

In Dignity Players’ long list of morality plays, Collected Stories is the crowning achievement. When a writing student mines her teacher’s private life for material, artistic license crosses the line from inspiration to confiscation. So says acclaimed author Ruth Steiner (played by Carol Cohen) of the transgression of heretofore-beloved student Lisa Morrison (Sarah Wade). Lisa claims she did only what her mentor taught her.
    Seasoned director Lois Evans’ leadership of a tiny stellar cast through a rich Donald Margulies script could earn this show the kind of recognition Colonial Players enjoyed in 2013: a Ruby Griffith Award for Margulies’ Shipwrecked!
    In the provocative ethical drama at hand, the intellectual professor Steiner has everything and nothing. Having forsaken marriage and children for a succession of young writers she adopts as secretaries/interns, she enjoys literary celebrity, a Bohemian Greenwich Village apartment and bittersweet memories of an affair 40 years earlier with one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, the middle-aged alcoholic Delmore Schwartz. She doesn’t like to talk about that. “Talking takes away the need to write,” she says, though she never does this writing.
    Lisa is a sycophantic graduate student: a bulimic WASP from a broken home who dreams of living Ruth’s life. Four years under Ruth’s tutelage transform her into a literary success with a short story collection of thinly veiled autobiographical tales. Then she panics. She fears she needs a novel to cement her reputation, but a writer writes what she knows and she’s written it all. So she quietly co-opts Ruth’s unwritten love story, shattering the friendship with her surrogate mum.
    In a play where image tells half the story, Cohen and Wade, aided by Jeannie Christie’s costumes, are transformed in a stunning role reversal: Cohen from mature role model to has-been frump and Wade from babbling bumbler to young sophisticate. I cannot imagine any two local actresses who could play Ruth and Lisa better.
    The only disappointments in this production are technical. The many long scene changes break the mood as audience conversation crescendos and time stretches to smoking-break lengths. On opening night, there was also an issue with crackly static in the absence of other sound effects. Both issues, though, can and should be resolved with experience, and neither negates the power of these performances. As added incentive, Dignity hosts poet Merrill Leffler of Dryad Press in a post-show discussion of authorial inspiration and ethics following the January 26 matinee.
    If all writers are rummagers, whose stories are safe?
    Come decide for yourself.

Stage Manager: Pat Browning. Technician: Julien Jacques.
Thru Feb. 1. FSa 8pm; Su 3pm at Dignity Players Theatre at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-266-8044 x 127; www.dignityplayers.org.

Don’t miss this gem of the American stage

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” A decade before coining that phrase, he showed us why in his 1929 debut novel Look Homeward Angel. This thinly veiled memoir of a tumultuous youth in his mother’s Dixieland Boardinghouse made him a pariah in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and a literary star to the rest of the nation. The 1958 stage adaptation by Ketti Frings won every major prize for American drama that year, and it still rings true and relevant.
    Compass Rose Theater’s beautiful production stars a talented University of Maryland grad, Shane O’Loughlin, in the lead role of Eugene Gant. A bookish young man, he yearns for education and escape from his overbearing mother, Eliza (artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne), and his romantic but alcoholic father, W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) Bret Jaspers costars as elder brother Ben, the cynical voice of experience who urges Eugene to flee. Who can blame them? Life with Eliza, the self-proclaimed “sharpest trader in town,” is no tea party. In a perpetual quest for cash, she puts the comfort of strangers above the needs of her own family, whom she manipulates into doing her bidding.
    Dapper Ben isn’t healthy enough to escape to World War I, as did his brother Luke (Chris Creane). So he helps in Father’s monument shop and passes the evenings at dingy Dixieland with a sympathetic older boarder  named Fatty (Janise Whelan). Big sister Helen (Kathryn Zoerb) and her husband Hugh (Dan Reno) are likewise caught in Eliza’s clutches as near servants. The other boarders are Uncle Will (Ed Klein); old Mrs. Clatt (Nancy Long); her son Jake (Eli Pendry); and a charming new arrival, Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons), who brings Eugene his first happiness and heartache. Dr. McGuire (Richard Fiske) is a frequent visitor to the home as well. Only the notorious Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford) never crosses the threshold, though she is on good terms with Father.
    From the melee, Eugene’s transformation from guileless gopher to mutineer is remarkable, culminating in a confrontation that will shake you to your weepy bones. Drawing equally on the strength of all the leads, this production gets four stars for credibility: from the sharp period fashions to the missing newels on the faded front porch to the manner of the family’s explosion with love and disdain. The only unbelievable part is Eliza and Father’s tantrum, which is too gentle on the set. I hope they go wild on closing night.

Director: Patrick Walsh. Set: Mary Goodson. Costumes: Linda Swann. Lights: Cecilia Durbin. 2.5 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Playing thru Feb. 9. Th (except Jan. 30) FSa 8pm Sa Feb. 1 & 8 and Su 2pm at 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

Come to feel, think and applaud

Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
    Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
    Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
    Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
    The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
    Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
    Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
    Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
    Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
    Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
    Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
    Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.

Playing thru Jan. 25 ThFSa 8pm & Su Jan. 19, 2 & 7:30pm at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Four SEALs fight for their lives in this gripping action film

Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg: 2 Guns), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch: Savages), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch: Bonnie and Clyde) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) are proud frogmen. They run long distances at great speeds, push their bodies to their limit for fun and take deadly assignments as part of the job.
    The latest mission should be an easy one. Their task is to scout a village in the woods of Afghanistan, positively identify a terrorist cell leader (code named Rick James) and report back to headquarters. Next, they’ll either get permission to eliminate the target, or fade into the shadows.
    The mission goes haywire because of three men and their goats. Herding their flock up a mountain, two boys and their father literally stumble on the frogmen. The SEALs have a choice: Kill the goatherds, or let them go possibly to return with an army of angry terrorists.
    Can the four team make it out of Afghanistan alive?
    Lone Survivor isn’t coy about what happens; it’s spelled out in the title. Though you know early that only one SEAL leaves the mountain, the film is a thrilling, gut-wrenching portrayal of a real incident. Stay through the credits to see a tribute to the brave men who lost their lives. 
    Director Peter Berg (Battleship) doesn’t bother with artistic shots or subtle imagery. His straightforward storytelling style doesn’t leave much room for nuance or character development. What he does well is convey the actuality of life for men stationed overseas. The opening credits show footage of actual SEAL training and how extreme it can be. Other effective sequences invoke the shadows of the people back home, whether the men are chatting with wives or wondering what to buy their fiancée.
    Berg also delivers on action, making the SEALs’ fight for survival brutal and terrifying. Gunfights in real life probably don’t come with visual metaphors and a soaring soundtrack, so Berg’s pared-down approach seems realistic. Berg views these SEALs as nearly superhuman, and his admiration shows in every shot.
    Keeping the SEALs from becoming action heroes are the actors entrusted with their story. Wahlberg, Foster, Kitsch and Hirsch keep their characters grounded in reality, showing their flaws as well as their dedication and drive. Together, the cast creates a tangible sense of brother­hood.

Good Action • R • 121 mins.

Sometimes, you shouldn’t go home again

The only thing that could bring together the Weston women is tragedy. When the family patriarch — poet ­Beverly (Sam Shepard: Out of the Furnace) — goes missing, the three sisters converge at their ancestral home, steeling themselves to deal with old hurts, family secrets and, worst of all, their mother.
    Violet Weston (Meryl Streep: Hope Springs) has been terrorizing her family since anyone can remember. Rude, cruel and high most of the time, Violet loves only her pills and her booze, both stashed around the house in case of emergencies. Two daughters have fled the state, but one has stayed in hopes of earning a kind word.
    Did Violet drive her husband away? Or has he, too, gone on a bender?
    The family emergency comes at the perfect time for all three of the Weston daughters, who are going through tumultuous changes. Ivy, the youngest (Julianne Nicholson: Masters of Sex), lives down the road and resents the sisters who left her to deal with mommy dearest. Ivy has a secret: She’s planning a big escape.
    Middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis: Open Road) devotes her life to finding a replacement for her mother’s love. She’s found a string of terrible men and awful relationships. She’s brought along her latest fiancé — no less a disaster — in hopes of impressing mother.
    Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts: Mirror Mirror) is also in crisis. Her husband has left and her teenager hates her. Still, she guilts both husband and daughter into joining her, hoping Violet won’t notice the rift.
    Will the Weston women find healing? Or will they join together to kill Violet?
    Based on the play by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County is the film to see if you’ve spent the holidays arguing with family. The comedic drama examines how Violet’s poisonous relationships have infected every aspect of their lives.
    Director John Wells (Shameless) makes Violet’s home cramped and dark if theatrical. The film doesn’t flow easily. Each scene seems more a set piece than a natural progression of storytelling. The only thing missing is a curtain drop.
    Excellent performances save August: Osage County the movie. As the matriarch, Streep is a collection of vices and vicious words overlying a deep sadness that adds pathos to her villainy.
    In a performance that’s both confident and commanding, Roberts stands out. Struggling to suppress her inherited cruelty, her Barbara is a wonder to watch, whether trying to show her daughter love or wrestling her mother to the ground.
    August: Osage County isn’t a film for everyone. There’s enough blue language and abusive behavior to send most holiday audiences running for the exits. But it’s a fantastic showcase for a troupe of powerful actresses.

Good Drama • R • 121 mins.