Girls Night, The Musical — It's difficult to knit a noose in the dark, using only the odd bits of string and fabric found in one's purse. But that didn't stop my mind from wandering during the performance of this steaming roadkill. Targeted at women and using existing songs (much like the Cleveland production of Menopause the Musical, but minus the talent and wit), Girls touches on a variety of female issues, from bubble butts and droopy boobs to feminine discharge. The book by Louise Roche is larded with tired jokes and interrupted by faux-emotional scenes that land with a thud. It also has a mean streak, as the cute girls all hate clumsy and homely Kate because she's, well, clumsy and homely. The five-woman cast of this touring calamity is led by narrator-angel Sharon, the long-dead friend of four other gals, who are keeping busy as 40-year-old karaoke bar hags. The familiar tunes ("I Will Survive," "We Are Family") are sung without passion or purpose. Why the Play House decided to give this traveling yeast infection a slot in their "Summer Fun" Series is a mystery. But that whirring sound you hear is K. Elmo Lowe spinning in his grave, as the gals drunkenly tote around a vinyl blow-up guy sporting a two-foot-long erection. Through July 6 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. — Howey
In the Garden — This ambitious but often didactic script by Norman Allen labors to blend spiritual observations, hard-edged rationality, and new age symbolism. But an impending slide into pseudo-intellectual irrelevance is happily blocked by the playwright's ability to craft realistic moments and some damn funny lines. And under Clyde Simon's direction, those lines are delivered with skill by a largely talented five-person cast. It's anchored by Gabe, who starts the play naked. But it's his soul that's laid bare. It's never made clear whether he is a student or a prostitute; homeless or rich; a kid, God, or the Devil himself. But he is undeniably erotic catnip for the adults who cross his path, including philosophy professor John (played with spot-on credibility by Vince DePaul), John's wife Muriel (the excellent Lucy Bredeson-Smith), and John's businessman-buddy Walter (a snarky Arthur Grothe). The play requires a Gabe who could believably generate total sexual obsession. That's exactly what we get — at least physically — in Tony Thai, a lean fellow of mystical mien who has a winning grin. Unfortunately, Thai isn't able to enunciate when speaking rapidly. Still, the play has some great lines, and when Garden blooms with wit, it fairly erupts. Through June 28, produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. — Howey
Late Nite Catechism 2 — Evidently, a Catholic school education is a bottomless reservoir of comedic material, given that so many shows have been based on those fearsome, ruler-wielding nuns. But the sister in this show, who remains nameless, isn't armed with any clickers or weapons — just an agile wit that makes her interaction with the audience frequently amusing. She doesn't hesitate to admonish audience members for untoward behavior, pointing and droning "Arm, arm, arm . . ." at anyone who dares put an arm around his or her honey. But she spends most of her time riffing on the Ten Commandments, confessionals, and whether Catholics used to abstain from meat on Fridays because a Portuguese pope wanted to help spike fish sales. Written by Maripat Donovan, this show-for-hire is part of the Cleveland Play House "Summer Fun" Series, running in tandem with the regrettable Girls Night. Catechism is performed by Lisa Buscani, a smooth and confident comedian with a good background in things religious. While there is no rolling in the aisles, the 90-minute two-act has plenty of smiles, like when she suggests a new mortal sin: owning a bobblehead doll of any member of the Holy Family. Through July 6 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. — Howey
A Nervous Smile — Brian and Eileen are a married couple, strong financially but otherwise crumbling, because their teenage daughter has cerebral palsy. This has driven the parents in different directions: Eileen to the bottom of scotch and Vicodin bottles; Brian to the arms of Nicole, a married woman whom he and Eileen met at a CP parent support group. Both families have children beset by the same disorder, and they join forces when Brian reveals his and Eileen's stunning plan to split up, and abandon their daughter at a hospital, leaving a substantial bank account for her care. (Brian also invites Nicole to leave her son with her clueless husband and escape to Argentina; she hurriedly accepts). The scheme is at once unthinkable and terrifyingly rational. As Eileen, Dede Klein is wonderfully brittle and bitchy, but she reveals just enough heart to let you know there's a person inside her withered shell. Also splendid is Linda Ryan, who makes the Russian Jewish candor of Blanka, who helps care for Emily, refreshingly biting. Susan Lucier handles Nicole well, although she seems soft on lines at times. As Brian, Michael Gatto never overcomes his physical stiffness and lack of chemistry with Lucier. Overall, John Belluso's unblinking study of the most trying form of parenting is written with insight and grim humor. It's a work that can send your soul searching in a number of directions. Through June 28 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. — Howey
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