Since 1835, the National has watched Washington transform itself from a chaotic city of dirt streets to a more clearly organized city of glittering monuments (surrounded by paved but potholed streets). Aside from rebuilding after a fire and serving as a movie house for several years, the National ranks as one of the oldest continuously operating playhouses in the country.
It is a beautiful, old-fashioned space to settle in and enjoy a show, despite a crowded lobby space and glaring turquoise walls. It's hard to guess from the cozy atmosphere that the theater houses 1,676 seats (done in red velvet).
Currently managed by the nonprofit Shubert Organization, the National's stage has hosted such stars as Ethel Merman, Spencer Tracy and Washington's own Helen Hayes. Playwright John Guare was an assistant manager at the National; Shirley MacLaine performed ushering duties; and her brother, Warren Beatty, acted as the stage doorman for a time. The landmark Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical "Show Boat" premiered here before going on to Broadway in 1927.
Although the theater has often been dark in recent years, offering only a production or two of the tired musical "Cats," it has begun again to offer tempting shows, including "Rent," "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and others. The National most often programs musicals, such as a recent national tour of "Chicago"; but once in a while a drama, such as Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," pops up.
-- Nicole Lewis
Bless the National Theatre. Who else would sponsor (with the help of the Marriott Foundation) free children's entertainment every Saturday for five months of the year? As it turns out, nobody else. The offerings are all over the map: clowns, magicians, puppet shows, mimes, storytellers. Shows are in the Helen Hayes Gallery, an open, mezzanine-level lobby area. Kids sit on the floor, grown-ups in chairs at the edges of the action. Seating is on a first-come basis.
-- John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: Go for the 9:30 a.m. show. It's easier to find parking and, if all tickets are gone, you can get some for the 11 o'clock performance. Use the extra time to visit a nearby attraction.
Food: You'll find food around the corner at the Shops at National Place.
Nearby: Pershing Park Ice Rink, National Aquarium, White House, Old Post Office Pavilion, Shops at National Place, National Museum of American History.