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Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)

Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)

Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man  (photo by Matt Hermes)

Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it was unavoidable. I happened to be standing nearby when a couple of theatergoers were discussing the then-current CATCO production.

I’d seen the show—a black comedy with nudity and adult situations—and loved it. But it seemed to have rubbed one of the strangers the wrong way, to the extent that he was disappointed he’d wasted his time seeing it.

OK, it’s a small incident, and one that happened several years ago. Still, it sticks in my mind because it’s so unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

The lineup for CATCO’s upcoming 2013-14 season suggests that Columbus’s premier theater troupe is increasingly devoting itself to the tried and true rather than the offbeat and unfamiliar—i.e., works that could potentially disappoint or offend anyone. With one or two exceptions, these are plays and musicals that the average theatergoer has had one or multiple chances to see.

You can’t blame CATCO, let alone artistic director Steven Anderson, for taking a cautious approach to programming. The troupe is probably doing what it has to do to survive in an increasingly tough artistic environment. And, truthfully, its shows are likely to please most people.

That description certainly fits the current production, Five Guys Named Moe, which sets toes a-tapping while giving audience members a chance to join in the singing or even get up and dance. With a book by Clarke Peters and music and lyrics by “jump blues” composer/bandleader Louis Jordan and others, it’s basically a musical revue held together by a bare-bones plot.

Nomax (Kevin Ferguson) is lamenting his recent breakup with his girlfriend when he’s accosted by the titular five Moes. They proceed to give him lessons on love and life with the help of vintage songs ranging from the romantic Azure Te to the silly I Like ’Em Fat Like That and the nonsensical sing-along Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.

Of the five Moes, Big Moe (Troy Anthony Harris) has the most personality and Four-Eyed Moe (LaRon Lee Hudson) has the handsomest voice, but all of the actors sing pleasantly. With direction by Anderson, music direction by Matt Clemens and spare choreography by Liz Wheeler, it all amounts to breezy entertainment.

On opening night, Ferguson had a few pitchy notes, and the actors and the backstage band sometimes had trouble agreeing on a tempo. Otherwise, problems were few. The only people who’ll be disappointed by this show are those who wax nostalgic for the old days when CATCO was more willing to challenge its audience.

Then again, there are other, smaller troupes that don’t mind pushing the envelope. And two of them, Gallery Players and New Players Theater, have joined forces to present a play that’s as dramatic and provocative as Five Guy Named Moe is safe and soothing.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is set in the ruins of a Richmond, Va., home in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. But this is no ordinary tale of the postwar era. That becomes clear as soon as freed slave Simon (Bryant Bentley) begins speaking in Hebrew.

We learn that Simon and fellow servant John (Christopher Austin) belonged to a Jewish family and were raised in that faith. The irony that members of one oppressed group owned members of another oppressed group is one of the issues that are explored dramatically after their former master’s son, Caleb (Chris Tucci), returns home from the war with a grievous wound.

Sometimes long-winded, sometimes stomach-churning and finally a bit abrupt, The Whipping Man is nevertheless fascinating. Best of all, it’s exquisitely staged by director Tim Browning and his cast.

Of the three actors, only Tucci seems overly restrained, and that’s partly because he’s limited by his role. As the kind and ethical Simon, Bentley gives one of the strongest performances of recent memory, one that gains depth and passion as the play proceeds. Meanwhile, Austin adds touches of humor and a sense of danger as the unscrupulous John.

Important contributions are made by scenic designer Peter Pauze, who’s created a depiction of a once-grand house that’s been devastated by war, and by lighting/sound designer Jarod Wilson, who sets key moments in the midst of a storm that mirrors the psychological turmoil the characters are experiencing.

Overall, it’s a powerful experience.

So you have a choice, theatergoers. If you like to be entertained, see Five Guys Named Moe. If you like to be entertained, educated and challenged, see The Whipping Man.

CATCO will present Five Guys Named Moe through May 26 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $45 for evening performances and $41 for Sunday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Gallery Players and New Players Theater will present The Whipping Man through May 19 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no show May 16), 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 for senior JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731, jccgalleryplayers.org or newplayers.org.

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