It's hard to complain about these two, solid shows. But why won't the big boys pick them up?

Small Feats of Bravery 

It's hard to complain about these two, solid shows. But why won't the big boys pick them up?

This August has shaped up to be the most exciting month of theater Kansas City has seen in a long while, but I still have to bitch. Both Unicorn Theatre's La Cage Aux Folles and Kansas City Actors Theatre's Dinner With Friends are triumphant entertainments worth catching more than once. But with no disrespect, I can't help but feel that these shows — both easy-to-take crowd-pleasers that are familiar due to film adaptations — shouldn't even be at these scrappy, smaller theaters.

Take La Cage. In this sensible city, artistic directors of the big-pants theaters don't suspect their audiences of homo-, xeno- or Francophobia. Therefore, a place like the American Heartland Theatre should be on this sentimental drag farce like a bulge suppressor on Ron Megee. Instead, it's left to the Unicorn, our resident home of the new and the daring. Thankfully, Director Jeff Church whips it up into a total delight, and Megee is the heart of this production. It's pure dessert, one that's sumptuous and satisfying, as opposed to the Old Country Buffet-style soft serve that the Heartland too often dishes.

Still, compared with the best Unicorn fare, it feels old-fashioned — it's as artistically conservative as it is socially libertine. Even its id is all mate-for-life romantic. For all its dom gear and fellated croissants, La Cage is the happiest and most bighearted of all the top-tier musicals, arguing for the importance of family.

The family here is George and Albin, gay Parisians who — yin and yang as they are — have formed an absolute partnership: They're lovers, they're parents and, most crucially, they're the hosts and stars of a drag cabaret. As George, Jim Korinke finds much that is new in his patented, twinkly warmth. Talking up La Cage performances in a pinched-up pidgin, he dials back his paternal gleam in favor of a Continental friskiness. He struts about in his white tux, with his hair blown up high and hard and his fingers squeezed into gold rings the size of lug nuts, looking like Christopher Walken playing Benny Hinn. Outlandish on the outside, Korinke's George is calm at the center, a man whose life is filled with all that he loves.

Chief among those loves is his cabaret — home of astonishing costumes, wild production numbers, and the invigorating accompaniment of Musical Director Molly Jessup. Even more important, though, are his son, Jean-Michel (Brandon Sollenberger), and his partner, Albin (Megee). Korinke's devotion to Albin is genuinely moving, especially considering the whirligig eccentricities of Megee's performance. Albin is a dreaming, birdlike transvestite, prone to swoons, squeaks and great whooping laughs. Always an adroit physical comedian, Megee here continually tops himself, coming up with many bits of business that still seem funny days later: his passing confusions, where his lips purse, briefly, and his body stiffens with ludicrous terror; the way he thrusts his pelvis to drumbeats in a spangle-shagged miniskirt; the perfectly dignified manner in which he duckwalks through low curtains so as not to lose one of many absurd hats.

As Albin, Megee flutes his voice, finding music in most of his lines. When called upon to carry a number, though, his voice deepens, sometimes croaking. This hampers an early number but ultimately does no real harm — it even enriches his pained solo at the end of Act 1. Megee could melt Sam Brownback — certainly, he could take on the Heartland crowd.

Then we have Dinner With Friends, a comic, intimate drama masterfully crafted by playwright Donald Margulies and performed with wise precision by a quartet of this town's best actors. Digging deeply into the particulars of two marriages — one failed and the other coasting — Margulies unearths universals about all romantic relationships. Also a likely hit, this superior production connects with its audience, quickly and deeply. Couples sitting around me at a recent performance were often whispering, or tapping each other's knees, signaling that's like us.

Or, worse, that's like you.

For some two hours, a sizable crowd laughed and felt, so transported by such a rare consonance of writing and acting. Nobody seemed to care much that, for all its dedicated craftspeople, KCAT is closer than ever to offering theater without trappings. The set is dominated by a wooden shelving unit, one that looks homemade in a bad way and is augmented by whatever pieces of furniture they absolutely couldn't do without. In a Martha's Vineyard flashback, Mark Robbins is done up in a dopey cap and Salvation Army beachwear.

Margulies' story concerns a breakup and its fallout. Melinda McCrary, at her tremulous finest, plays Beth, who breaks down at a dinner party, announcing that husband Tom has left her for a stewardess. Immediately, we take her side but, when we meet him, we empathize with him, too. Mark Robbins plays Tom as exhilarated but scared, sometimes swaggering, sometimes caved in on himself, and always reminding us that the mistress is actually a travel agent.

If it's tricky for the audience to take sides, it's excruciating for the couple's dinner-party guests, Gabe and Karen. David Fritts does subtle and stellar work as Gabe, a husband who is a bit bored himself but would never admit it. Between the two men, we sense two wildly different answers to the toughest question of any romantic partnership: What takes greater courage, sticking with what isn't working or cutting free? As Karen, Cathy Barnett is stuck early on with some unaccountably prosaic passages, but by the finale she's the quiet soul of the show. Karen and Gabe at last put their own marriage under the microscope, and we hope against hope that what follows is more examination than autopsy.

The director is Dennis Hennessy, of the New Theatre. His pacing arrests but allows time for contemplation, and his actors move with a clarity of purpose too often lacking on the local stage.

Hennessy's very presence left me wondering: How is it that a show this smart, affecting and accessible is left to an upstart company without its own theater? And why does it occur so rarely to the folks presiding over massive endowments — the folks with access to serious trappings — to mount serious contemporary plays?

In wholly unrelated news: This holiday season, the Rep brings us The John Denver Holiday Concert.

So let's savor August, and how it's possible to score big hits without sacrificing integrity.

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