Curtains up on new theater in Washington


Maurice Hines, with John and Leo Manzari, rehearse for “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life,” which comes to Arena Stage in November. (Photo by Tony Powell)
October 24, 2013

How many times have you waited for Godot or heard Stanley Kowalski bellow “STELLLAAAA”? Has it gotten to the point where you can recite Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio and the skull of poor Yorick?

It’s understandable. Some wonderful, well-worn plays land onstage again and again, and for many theatergoers (especially those with limited dollars), there’s safety in the familiar. But the time has come to be adventurous, and the payoff could be big.

Over the next month in local theaters, there will be numerous opportunities to see shows that have never been staged in the area. Some are world premieres, including a promising pre-Broadway engagement at National Theatre and a musical that reunites some of Signature Theatre’s hit makers. Then there are plays that have gotten a bit of practice and acclaim elsewhere before making their Washington debut: Playwright Richard Nelson’s famously ordinary Apple Family is bringing its dinner table banter our way, and a red-hot South African import will scorch the stage at Shakespeare Theatre.

There might be a certain appeal to lip-syncing theatrical dialogue, but it can’t compete with the thrill of discovering a new gem.

Crossing at Signature Theatre

Although he had been acting for ages, Matt Conner had little experience composing before creating “Nevermore” for Signature Theatre in 2006 with the help of Grace Barnes, who wrote the book, and director Eric Schaeffer. Conner couldn’t even read music. But who could tell? The musical, inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, looked and sounded like that of an accomplished veteran. Now, Conner, Barnes and Schaeffer have reunited for another world premiere musical. “Crossing” takes place in a train station, where generations of people from all walks of life cross paths. Signature has even aired a few of the show’s tunes on its Web site, and so far the gospel-tinged numbers sound promisingly rousing.

Tuesday-Nov. 24. Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.,Arlington. 703-820-9771. www.signature-theatre.org. $29-$98.

Appropriate at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Washington native Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has made his home town proud since moving to New York. Subversive though his plays may be, Jacobs-Jenkins snagged the first Tennessee Williams Award from the Sundance Institute earlier this year. His new play, which premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival in March, is making its way to Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The plot may sound familiar to those acquainted with “August: Osage County” or any other number of plays about family dysfunction. Yet Jacob-Jenkins promises something more incendiary with his tale of a group of relatives who gather after the death of the family patriarch. But rather than operating under the pall of low-level discomfort, as with so many other similarly themed plays, the group stumbles upon a sickening secret that throws the family into chaos.

Nov. 4-Dec. 1. Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net. $35-$67.50. Pay-what-you-can Nov. 4-5.

If/Then at National Theatre

National Theatre is emerging as the phoenix of the Washington theater world. After years of middling-to-nonexistent programming, the National is kicking off an exciting season with a world premiere musical. And it’s not just any new play, but the latest venture from the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning team behind “Next to Normal” — formidable composer-lyricist duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, plus director Michael Greif and producer David Stone. Adding more buzz to the already notable line-up is Idina Menzel, the powerful vocalist and Tony winner best known for “Rent” and “Wicked.” Menzel plays Elizabeth, a middle-age woman looking for a fresh start and new adventures by moving to Manhattan. “If/Then” also is headed north: After its stint in Washington, the production is scheduled to debut on Broadway in March.

Nov. 5-Dec. 8. National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-6161. www.thenationaldc.org. $53-$108.

The Apple Family Plays at Studio Theatre

Richard Nelson’s politically themed “The Apple Family Plays” finally are headed to Washington. The quartet of works revolves around the Apple family of Rhinebeck, N.Y., and each play deals with a different evening around the dinner table. Studio Theatre is staging the first half of the four-part series — 2010’s “That Hopey Changey Thing,” which looks at the family dynamic on election night 2010, and 2011’s “Sweet and Sad,” which is set on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The plays will show in repertory, and the top-notch cast includes Rick Foucheux, Ted van Griethuysen and Kim Schraf.

Nov. 13-Dec. 29. Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org. $59-$75.

Mies Julie
at the Lansburgh Theatre

The South African-set adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” has been making waves wherever it lands, first at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 and then in London and New York. Shakespeare Theatre Company is hosting the area premiere of Yael Farber­’s sizzling update of Strindberg’s story of sex and power, which takes place on Freedom Day, commemorating the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s election. The title character is the scantily clad daughter of a white plantation owner who seeks the attention of her father’s favorite servant, a black man. But one night of lust opens all kinds of baggage.

Nov. 9-24. Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org. $45-$60.

Tappin’ Through Life at Arena Stage

Few people half his age could keep up with 69-year-old Tony-nominated tap-dancer Maurice Hines. He has been touring with this effervescent feel-good show — a personal take on the history of tap — and is bringing it to Washington for the first time in November. Along for the ride are young local phenoms the Manzari Brothers, proving that whenever Hines decides to slow down (hopefully a long, long time from now), there will be others who can carry the torch. The all-female Diva Orchestra will provide accompaniment.

Nov. 15-Dec. 29. Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org. $64-$114.

Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave by Hub Theatre

This small Northern Virginia theater company has managed to stage inventive new plays with limited resources, all the while growing its reputation. Hub starts its sixth season with the U.S. premiere of this play by Asian Canadian playwright David Yee, which debuted in April at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The play consists of stories about survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

Nov. 15-Dec. 8. John Swayze Theatre, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. 800-494-8497. www.thehubtheatre.org. $30.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies, theater and art for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. She’s also the section’s de facto expert on yoga, gluten-free dining and bicycle commuting.
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