Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations. 

Bravo, Caruso! -- In the galaxy of larger-than-life performers, opera icon Enrico Caruso was a blazing star. He was the man who brought macho chops to the previously effete position of the tenor and paved the way for Luciano, Placido, et al. This slight play by William Luce, now in performance at Ensemble Theatre, captures a snapshot of Caruso in his dressing room before the performance that was to be his last -- the great man was dying from bronchial pneumonia. As Enrico and his longtime dresser Mario fuss and bicker, a soft-focus portrait of the singer emerges. While the story is less than gripping, even with the fame and scandals, the performances under the direction of Licia Colombi are captivating. Pat Mazzarino is sweetly doting as Mario. Though his Midwest accent peeks out a few times in the first act, Mazzarino is the perfect servant and companion. In the role of Caruso, Bernard Canepari radiates the confidence and playfulness for which the singer was famous. And as he transforms Caruso into the guise of his last role, that of Eleazar in La Juive, Canepari finds the touchstone of all great performers: total dedication to the illusion they are about to create. Presented by Ensemble Theatre through December 11 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-321-2930. -- Christine Howey

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

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg -- Did you hear the one about the couple with the severely handicapped child? That's not a surefire intro to a joke, but it is the setup for this 1960s play, which shows how a British family uses humor -- often of the blackest sort -- to deal with a child described chillingly by Dad as a "living parsnip." Playwright Peter Nichols himself is the father of a similarly handicapped child, and he pulls no punches as Sheila and Bri (given an acidly witty turn by Jeffrey Grover) use laughter to deflect despair. Bri takes the lead in these efforts and Sheila goes along, even as she harbors hope for her daughter's miraculous recovery. In the immensely challenging role of Sheila, Jacqi Loewy is interesting, but not totally involving. Surely there is a psychic price to be paid as Sheila faces her husband's bruising, sardonic pessimism every day, but we don't fully sense that tension. Still, director Sarah May keeps the pacing taut and the comedy piercing, and helps one contemplate how people cope with such a corrosive reality. Through December 10 at various locations. For details, go to www.charenton.org. -- Howey

Love, Janis -- Janis Joplin's six-pack-a-day voice and the gentle soul behind it are the undeniable stars of Love, Janis. Based on the book of the same name by Laura, Janis' sister, the play is in effect a full-blown concert, with short interludes that show the singer's quieter and more reflective side. Quoting liberally from the letters she sent home, a more three-dimensional picture of Janis emerges as she fights professionally to avoid becoming "the poor man's Cher." As adapted and directed by Randal Myler, two women portray Janis, one speaking and one primarily singing, to emphasize the bifurcation of her psyche (at one point the icon says, "I gotta go change into Janis; she's upstairs in a box"). Katrina Chester as the singing Janis (she shares the tonsil-ravaging role with Lauren Dragon) embodies the explosive energy and total commitment of Joplin's full-body-contact blues. Even when she's not singing during musical bridges, Chester's "going down" on the bass guitar or dry-humping the drum set, always making love to her music. Amazingly, Morgan Hallett, as the speaking Janis, matches Chester's intensity by stitching thoughts from the singer's missives and remembrances into a homespun quilt of surprising and poignant sweetness. This show is not to be missed. Through February 12 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- 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

T.I.D.Y. -- Conspiracies are all the rage these days, so they would seem rich territory for theatrical comedy. Of course, it's incumbent upon the playwright to assemble a deft and captivating vehicle that can poke holes in pompous and arrogant governmental schemers while giving us a hero with whom we can bond. Local playwright Eric Coble has attempted such a task in this world-premiere comedy, and while the first act shows some promise, the second act jumps so many sharks, it feels like a water-ski show on the set of Jaws. It's a shame, too, since the uniformly fine cast -- featuring Sarah Morton, Kevin Joseph Kelly, and Nicholas Koesters -- is worthy of much better material. In brief, anal-retentive Emily Danbert is a geek who has created a computer program for libraries that provides information about every person in the U.S. (Makes you wonder if the playwright ever heard of Lexis-Nexis or Google.) Soon she's being tracked by assassins, having her flat bugged by a suspicious cable guy, and meeting a mysterious phone caller in a parking garage. In the process, Coble continually gets in his own way with writing that often smacks of skit night at summer camp. Through December 18 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

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