Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Howey
The Family Line -- With his play now on the boards at Karamu, it's gratifying to know that Peter Lawson Jones, the intelligent and personable Cuyahoga County commissioner, has more on his mind than finance and administration. Jones shows promise as a writer, but it would be advisable that he not throw away his yard signs just yet. His script centers on Brad, a 28-year-old former high school basketball star, who whines about his missed chances and wants a male heir to make himself feel like a man. The story has potential, but is waylaid by irrelevant scenes and meandering dialogue. When Brad learns from his wife Sheila that they can't bear children, he instantly blames her and finds a young woman to shack up with, but his motivation is fuzzy. Director Desmond Jones has a talented cast, particularly Sonia Bishop as the put-upon wife and Karyn Lewis as her best friend. But too many tortured pauses and some inconsistently mimed action (during dinner, the actors eat the salad, but pretend to eat the meat) makes the whole affair seem artificial. And one free tip to playwright Jones: Drop the title "The Honorable" before your name in the playbill; having your name under the title of a produced play is honor enough. Through November 20 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Howey
Mambo Italiano -- A regrettable legacy of the old loosey-goosey Rat Pack days is that people think a great cabaret show should be laid-back. That's how it should look, of course, but it can't be how it's executed, which is proven in this show at the Cleveland Play House Club. Although they're backed by a solid three-piece combo, the trio of performers suffer from a lack of stage presence, uneven vocal ability, and minimal comedic talent. That adds up to a rather dreary hour and a half for a $20 cover. The tissue-thin premise from writer-director Bill Hoffman -- that the Mafia-lite Biancamano brothers have taken the place of a missing girl duo -- can't save songs that often fall flat. Playing lead crooner Tony, expressionless Donnie Long hits the notes, but his shallow baritone is all throat and no gut, and he doesn't coax the boozy melancholy out of "One for My Baby." As for the supposed gangster brothers, Ted Losito does a nice job on "Teach Me Tonight" and gets off a couple cute punch lines, but Gary Siciliano sleeps with the fishes, whether acting or singing. Through November 19 at the Cleveland Play House Club, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey
Menopause, the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause, the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed so easy. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey
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