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BWW REVIEWS: FAMILIES AND POLITICS MIX IT UP ON BOSTON STAGES

Now that the snow is cleared and roads are back open, Boston area theater-goers have a few more chances to catch four strong plays that can put an end to cabin fever. From Boston to Watertown to Lowell and back again, some of the area's best regional theater companies are provoking as much dysfunctional family laughter as they are stimulating political thought.

RED HOT PATRIOT: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins starring Karen MacDonald

Lyric Stage Company, Boston - through January 31 - www.lyricstage.com

As the late Molly Ivins, one of the most inspiring and influential journalists and humorists of our time, Karen MacDonald kicks some serious political butt. Whether wrestling with the childhood demons that drove her to fight for the liberal causes she believed in wholeheartedly, or flailing fellow Texans (George Bush, Sr., George Bush, Jr., and the seven Speakers of the House who were either indicted or murdered!), MacDonald laces Ivins' pointed observations with a winking wryness that challenges even the most diehard conservative to disagree.

Of course, RED HOT PATRIOT is preaching to the liberal choir here in Massachusetts, but it's fun to be reminded of Ivins' most memorable stories and quotable quotes. Pithy anecdotes from her many columns, lectures, speeches and books are excerpted here, spanning her years at the Minneapolis Tribune, The New York Times, the Texas Observer, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Ivins' career covered four decades, from the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s to the War in Iraq that continues to rage eight years after her death. She was relentless in her criticism of institutionalized racism and the corruption of politics by corporate greed. She was also fearless in her support of a free press, even when it threatened her own livelihood. In spite of her laser-like insights into all that is wrong with the system, however, she remained a cockeyed optimist right to the end. One can only wonder what she would think of what's happening in her beloved country and the world today. Undoubtedly, she'd be heartsick, but she'd also expose the hypocrisy and take no prisoners with her razor-sharp homespun humor.

While Ivins' books and speeches are readily available online and on YouTube, RED HOT PATRIOT is worth the visit just for the performance of Karen MacDonald. She channels Ivins' intelligence and deadpan delivery as she marches through highlights of her remarkable history. Slide projections further enhance the nostalgia, using headlines and iconic photos to illustrate, and sometimes serve as fodder for, Ivins' storytelling.

(RED HOT PATRIOT is directed by Courtney O'Connor. Jacob Athyal serves as Ivins' Helper. Photos by Mark S. Howard.)

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Huntington Theatre Company, Boston - through February 1 - www.huntingtontheatre.org

Christopher Durang's laugh-out-loud funny VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, currently enjoying a sensational Boston staging directed by Jessica Stone, is guaranteed to kick up the endorphin level and banish the winter blues. This Huntington production is performed in tribute to the company's late great artistic director Nicholas Martin, who directed this Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2013. Martin must be smiling down from Heaven on this crackerjack cast.

Durang combines his own cockeyed humor with the sophisticated wit of old-time screwball comedies to deliver a hilarious mash-up of Chekhovian malaise and modern-day sibling rivalry. The central characters are two sisters and one brother, all named after characters in Chekhov plays. The three begin to clash over the family homestead when aging movie star Masha (a deliciously self-absorbed but vulnerable Candy Buckley) returns home intending to sell the property.

The problem is, Vanya (a hangdog but droll Martin Moran) and Sonia (the hysterically funny yet sympathetic Marcia DeBonis) still live there, dependent on Masha for their well-being. Turns out they gave up their jobs 15 years ago to care for their ailing parents, and now they have no visible means of support. With few skills and even less confidence, Vanya and Sonia spend most of their time whining and moaning. Masha, meanwhile, has her own problems. Her Hollywood star is fading, and it will only be a matter of time before her muscular but dim boy-toy Spike (a narcissistically child-like Tyler Lansing Weaks) becomes arm candy for a younger, more bankable starlet.

Everything comes to a head when Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike - and a neighbor's visiting daughter Nina (the lovely Allison Layman) - are invited to a costume party down the road. Masha decides everyone should go as characters out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but Sonia's rebellion turns Masha's plans into farce. Add to the mix a cleaning woman named Cassandra (the fabulous Haneefah Wood) who practices voodoo and portends disaster at every turn, and the stage is set for mayhem in the first degree.

As usual with the Huntington Theatre Company, the set is something to behold. Part upscale country retreat and part cartoon cottage, the fieldstone exterior and wood beamed ceiling of the morning room almost dwarf (get it?) the splendidly quirky details inside and out.

The beauty of Durang's comedy is that there is always a beating heart beneath the warped craziness. This splendid cast gets that and delivers on every laugh and nuance. The icing on the cake is DeBonis' achingly funny bipolar portrayal of a wall flower with the potential to be the life of the party. She has the audience eating out of the palm of her hands.

(PHOTOS BY TIM COX: Tyler Lansing Weaks as Spike, Haneefah Wood as Cassandra, Candy Buckley as Masha and Martin Moran as Vanya; Martin Moran, Candy Buckley, Marcia DeBonis as Sonia and Tyler Lansing Weaks)

MUCKRAKERS

NEW Repertory Theatre, Watertown - through February 1 - www.newrep.org

More often than not, stories that are ripped from the headlines are less compelling than the real thing. That's not the case with MUCKRAKERS, a thoroughly absorbing and surprisingly funny new play by Zayd Dohrn directed by New Rep's Bridget Kathleen O'Leary.

Exploring the murky waters of personal privacy vs. government transparency, MUCKRAKERS takes Mira (Esme Allen) and Stephen (Lewis D. Wheeler) on a series of unexpected twists and turns as they hook up after a lecture Stephen has given that Mira has coordinated. He is a political journalist and internet hacker modeled after WikiLeaks and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. She is a young activist who outs public figures on a start-up blog called The Durga Project. Both ostensibly believe that privacy facilitates corruption and deceit, but over the course of many drinks and a hasty lovemaking session at Mira's studio apartment they discover that they each have distinct boundaries when it comes to how much personal information they are willing to reveal.

What Mad Magazine did at the height of the Cold War with Spy vs. Spy, MUCKRAKERS does in the internet age. Its scathing humor puts the "counter" in counter-intelligence and shows how unfounded paranoia can morph into very real covert operations. Espionage, then, can trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy of misdeeds and mistrust. Information becomes the weapon, and even allies can become its targets.

O'Leary once again demonstrates her canny skills as a fearless director of intimate drama. She has guided Allen and Wheeler to deliver seemingly effortless performances, natural and easy to watch despite the Black Box Theatre's goldfish bowl setting. As they jab and weave their way through Dohrn's intricate script, they discuss politics and pontificate on principles as if they were engaging in lighthearted intellectual foreplay. They keep our attention rapt, and the final twist is a knockout.

The single set by Alexander Grover is simple yet effective. The Spartan furniture and political placards on the walls suggest that Mira is much more comfortable with ideas than with feelings. Sound and light cues are few, but the simulated computer projection screen above Mira's workstation looms menacingly at key moments throughout the play.

MUCKRAKERS doesn't just regurgitate the news of the day. It explores the inner psyche of the hacker in a way that turns the news inside out and upside down. Spy vs. Spy indeed.

(PHOTOS BY ANDREW BRILLIANT: Esme Allen as Mira and Lewis C. Wheeler as Stephen; Lewis C. Wheeler and Esme Allen)

THE BEST BROTHERS

Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell - through February 1 - www.mrt.org

THE BEST BROTHERS written by Daniel MacIvor and directed by Charles Towers puts a darkly humorous spin on sibling rivalry in a comedy that could just as easily be called "two sons and a funeral." As the uptight married architect Hamilton (Michael Canavan) and his infuriatingly easy-going gay brother Kyle (Bill Kux) come together to make final plans for their dearly departed mother Ardeth "Bunny" Best, they squabble endlessly over everything from which of her colorful friends and relatives to include in the obituary to whether or not to serve tuna sandwiches or panini at the Visitation. Hamilton wants to take the expedient route and keep things simple while Kyle wants his mother to go out in style.

Of course, their arguments are never really about the petty details. Rather, they are about the relationships each man has had with his mother, a flamboyant woman who lavished as much love and attention on her Italian greyhound Enzo as she did on her own human progeny. The fact that she also seemed to favor one son over the other is no small cause of repressed ill will.

When Hamilton and Kyle are stuck comically arguing the minutiae of their mother's funeral arrangements, their discussions only hint at the wounded thoughts and feelings that lie just beneath the surface. When the action switches to internal monologues, however, more pieces of their psychological puzzles are revealed. Similarly, through the use of a clever storytelling device that puts Hamilton and Kyle in drag, we also come to know more about the vivacious Bunny Best. Alternately channeling herself through her sons as they don her trademark red hat and white gloves, she sheds light on the very different perceptions the boys had of her while growing up.

Both Canavan and Kux navigate the humor and pathos of THE BEST BROTHERS with gentle dexterity and flair. Canavan tempers his bottled anger with a layer of pain that makes his Hamilton sympathetic. Kux deflects Kyle's hurt and sadness with an overly cheerful outlook and smartly acerbic tongue. Each is vibrant and convincing as the ghostly mother Bunny. They inform their impersonations in such a way that you clearly see that each is his mother's son.

It would be easy for a play about the loss of a loved one to become trite or maudlin. THE BEST BROTHERS thankfully avoids clichés to deliver laughs along with the reflection.

PHOTOS BY MEGHAN MOORE: Michael Canavan as Hamilton and Bill Kux as Kyle; Michael Canavan and Bill Kux.


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From This Author Jan Nargi