The Children's Hour -- Set in a private school for girls, Lillian Hellman's 1934 play about the power of a lie meanders slowly through its first two acts, establishing the school's two dedicated owner-instructors, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, along with their demon-seed student, Mary Tilford (played wonderfully by Heather Farr). An Ann Coulter mini-me, Mary bullies her trembling peers, cons her ditzy teacher, Mrs. Lily Mortar, and seeks revenge on the two women, who see through her petulant, manipulative antics. She finds her opening when she hears gossip about an argument between Martha and Lily, pertaining to Martha's sour attitude whenever Karen's fiancé is around. Lily accuses Martha of being jealous, and Mary builds that small nugget of truth into a boulder-sized lie, culminating in the false claim that she saw the two women kissing. Once Mary lays this whopper on her doting grandmother, phones around town start ringing, and Karen and Martha's quiet, orderly world disintegrates. While this controversy might have seemed quaintly out-of-date even five years ago, it takes on new relevance now, due to the obsession of religious fundamentalists over anything they claim to be gender-suspicious. Also setting this production apart are the deft performances that director Sarah May evokes from her cast. Through February 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Christine Howey
The Honky Tonk Angels -- Dinner theater, unfortunately, has come to mean an ill-conceived meal followed by a half-baked stage performance. For many years, the fine folks at Carousel have been trying to defy that conventional wisdom, blending these two elements to the delight of loyal followers. And they're at it again with this rather carelessly assembled, virtually plotless musical, featuring three women crooning a selection of country-western favorites. The down-on-their-luck Southern damsels meet on a transcontinental bus and decide to take the Nashville music scene by storm; in a trice, they land on stage at the Hillbilly Heaven nightclub. Among the three game New York performers, Elizabeth Stanley has the best voice, and her evocative second-act rendition of Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" is as close to a heart-stopper as there is. Barbara Helms twangs her songs appropriately and has deft comic timing, but Trudi Posey layers too much nasal edge and leg-splaying oafishness on her character, turning a possibly endearing good old gal into a minor irritant. When they perform as a trio, though, the results are often pleasant -- especially in the fragile and almost ethereal "Sittin' on the Front Porch Swing." Through March 6 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey
Tape -- A hostile confrontation between longtime friends forms the story line of this taut one-act by Stephen Belber. It's set in a Motel 6 in Lansing, where Vince is ostensibly attending the screening of his buddy Jon's movie at a local festival. But it's clear from the outset that Vince has a secret agenda. These two have taken very different paths in the decade since high school: While smooth-talking Jon is crafting a promising career in cinema, the emotionally combustible Vince is a volunteer fireman and drug peddler. Soon, Jon is reflexively offering Vince unwelcome criticism, but Vince fires back with the startling claim that, at the end of senior year, Jon had date-raped Vince's girlfriend, Amy. Jon eventually admits to using too much force -- a statement Vince gleefully reveals he has captured on a hidden tape recorder. Belber's script is fascinating and often quite funny, as it draws these two oddly matched friends into a vortex of accusation and recrimination. Paced like a David Mamet play, Tape hits its high point when Amy herself shows up -- a rendezvous set up by Vince to torment Jon. But Vince doesn't quite get the payback he's hoping for. From the start to the unconventional curtain call, this is a totally involving production. Presented by the Night Kitchen through February 6 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396. -- Howey
Triple Espresso -- If Lawrence Welk had been a jokester and not a bandleader, this is the kind of comedy show he would have created. Squeaky-clean and with all the edge of a Nerf ball, this mildly humorous pastiche of familiar gags, magical flimflam, and shadow puppets (yes, shadow puppets!) is the perfect production to send your not-so-hip grandparents to on their anniversary. The plotless exercise is based on the entirely believable premise of a miserably unfunny 1970s comedy trio, back for a reunion at a coffeehouse owned by an unseen native of Zaire with a funny, African-sounding name (ha-ha). Thus the reason for a title that does not, alas, refer to the level of stimulation provided. Co-authors (with the absent Bill Arnold) Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg overdo their signature mugging, with the latter working his baffled-Dickie-Smothers double takes way too hard. Triple Espresso has been playing for a long time in some cities, thanks to its genial good humor. But if you like your comedy with bite, this one will gum you to death. Through February 13 at the Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Tuesdays With Morrie -- Since its release in 1998, Mitch Albom's memoir has become the marketing equivalent of a Tickle Me Elmo doll -- a comforting, enormously popular, warm-and-fuzzy recollection of Morrie Schwartz's doomed battle with Lou Gehrig's disease and the lessons Albom learned by reuniting with his former sociology prof in his dying days. Co-written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, this Tuesdays includes most of the highs (Morrie's rapid-fire wit) and lows (a series of bubble-gum insights) that appear throughout the book. It features a couple of excellent performances -- by Bernie Passeltiner as Morrie and Charles Kartali as Albom's narrator -- but it can't quite overcome a script in which too many of the characters' imperfections have been buffed out and the characters are never permitted to respond to each other in any way except as teacher and student. It's hard to quibble with a dying man's last thoughts -- but this isn't a hospice, this is theater, and force-feeding banal epigrams seems more appropriate for a needlepoint pillow or a Mylar balloon than an involving theatrical presentation. Through February 6 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey
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