For a good time, head to THE DROWSY CHAPERONE onstage at Lyric Stage!  It’s a bubbly brouhaha of hi-jinks and high-stepping hilarity! Yes, I just said that. And it’s utterly in keeping with the silly frisson of this absurdly entertaining “show within a show” musical–but with a tinge of blue at its core. The show that frames the show begins in the dark, starring “Man in Chair” (the divinely funny Paul Melendy) alone in a drab apartment. His first words to us are “I hate theatre.” But many words and one scratchy record later, we understand not only that he does NOT hate theater, but also that he needs it, this marvelous portal to another world, an escape “from the dreary horrors of the real world.” He puts on the record of the score of a fictional 1928 musical he’s never seen called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” And please remember what was looming over all those jazz-age flappers, bootleggers, dowagers,  showgirls, and bon vivants just before they Charleston-ed their way into economic oblivion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is exactly that show designed to take us and Man in Chair away from it all and into a merry-go-round of “mayhem, mix-ups, and a gay wedding!” The stage is delightfully transformed as Melendy’s Man in Chair comments on the crackpot plot tumbling out of his imagination and onto the stage. A talented chorine named Janet (terrific triple threat Joy Clark) is trying to snag a rich oil tycoon (Jared Troilo) so she can quit showbiz, but her Ziegfeld-like producer (Damon Singletary) wants her to stay so he can make a bundle, while his over-eager, under-talented sidekick Kitty (Kristian Espiritu) just wants to be a star! The rest is a madcap whirl of mistaken identities, attempted seductions, and a flurry of eccentric characters: gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (Kathy St. George and Ilyse Robbins); a Latin lover on the loose (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia), a spunky aviatrix (Yasmeen Duncan), a tap dancing best man (Mark Linehan), a befuddled dowager (Carolyn Saxon) and her mordant butler Underling (Todd Yard); and finally in an over the top turn by Maureen Keiller –the titular and tippling Tallulah Bankhead-like Drowsy Chaperone herself! Stir in some songs and dances,  shenanigans and schtick, and even a pair of roller skates– and the show whips itself into a feel-good frenzy.

In the production’s penultimate moments, we are reminded of the premise… that man in the chair–like us in our seats–shares a few more poignant bits about his real life, and it crystallized one of the gifts of musical theater: this sparkling production (Director/Choreographer Larry Sousa & Musical Director Matthew Stern) with its effervescent cast– took me right out of this world for a little while, with others in like circumstances, on a rainy matinee day… NOW at LYRIC STAGE through May 12!  Click here to see THE DROWSY CHAPERONE featured on WBZ-TV (CBS BOSTON)

For something a little bleaker and no doubt closer to reality check out a well-acted, potent production of Harold Pinter’s classic THE BIRTHDAY PARTY mounted by PRAXIS STAGE. It’s an elastic, absurdist work that tackles the big themes– Who are we? What are the forces that shape our lives? What is our orientation to them and each other? What does it all mean? Praxis Stage, back on the scene in this tiny space– has taken on a major work and has done it justice.

The action begins in a barren kitchen with minimal furniture, in a dwelling which may or may not be a boarding house, but then every house may be seen as a temporary dwelling through which we all pass. This and many other “facts” are indeterminate in the text, Pinter questioning the limits of  power and what’s knowable in this world.

In any case, here we find needy, fanciful wife Meg who’s somewhere between oblivious and manipulative- a detailed, nuanced performance by Sharon Mason. She is serving breakfast to her husband Petey (Paul Valley) who appears  impervious to his wife’s attempts to engage him in what seems like boring and pointless chatter about cornflakes and the weather. They reference a third person, Stanley (Zair Silva) whom we at first think might be their young son, but who emerges as an angry adult who has been living there for a year, a pianist who may or may not be accomplished.

This “nuclear” family of sorts explodes with the addition of two strangers who come looking for Stan, who is immediately unnerved and frightened. The two arrive on what may be Stan’s birthday, and their motives are unclear, but tension builds through Act II when they turn his birthday party into a violent bacchanal  (the direction here is pretty muddled) and eventually overpower Stanley.

The production needed more texture, a more dramatically interesting arc. Instead, director James Wilkinson approaches this work as a pretty straight shot to hell in the shape of conformity– religious, political, corporate– whatever you got. This may sound strange, but I wish Act I had been directed more for laughs, allowing the sinister subtext to emerge more slowly. Those two strangers Goldberg and McCann, who sound like a comedy duo (played by Praxis founder Daniel Boudreau and Kevin Paquette), might have leaned into that and enacted a kind of twisted “bonhomie” leading up to Act II.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the commanding Boudreau with his menacing frame and booming voice, but he would have been even more terrifying if he had taken a bit of a detour on his way to fully embracing the bullying Goldberg, along with Kevin Paquette’s irritable McCann who devolves straight into seething disarray. Darya Denisova as Lulu has more fun plumbing the ambiguity of the text, her performance quavering on the edge of uncertainty, poised between flirtation and sullen acceptance of the forces overwhelming this shindig. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is a remarkably relevant work now, and this production is powerful enough to yield a myriad interpretations, especially in these turbulent times, where facts are malleable, fascism is gaining ground, and the temperature is rising.  SEE THE BIRTHDAY PARTY through April 28th at Chelsea Theatre Works.