ACTING SHAKESPEARE --

(Olney Theater, through July 26)

Three months after playing the National Theater, Ian McKellen's civilized one-man show is back for a return engagement -- this time at Olney Theater. One of the most gifted British actors of his generation, McKellen is also the teacher you wish you'd had in English class, whenever the subject of Shakespeare came up. He chats about the bard (as if he were an old friend), shares backstage anecdotes, acts bits and pieces of his favorite roles and dissects one of Macbeth's speeches (to show you how he gets at the deeper meanings). It's a loose, but thoroughly beguiling mixture of scholarship, informality and charm. At the end, you can even join McKellen onstage for a brief acting lesson. The least intimidating of evenings, "Acting Shakespeare" is, quite unexpectedly, also one of the most entertaining. -- David Richards. FOUR MEN FROM ANNAPOLIS --

(Touchstone Theater Company, through August 2)

Eerily echoing recent (and past, and future) headlines, Touchstone Theater's "Four Men From Annapolis" ties espionage, honor and sexual blackmail into a prickly moral knot. In his first play, Washington playwright Ron Wood, himself a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, is ostensibly concerned with how private affairs can explode into the public consciousness. But Wood's pulpy drama is as formulaic and predictable as a military drill -- a two-act rewrite of "Red Nightmare" -- and the audience is usually well ahead of the hastily sketched boys in the barracks. The cast is likable through thick and thin, though, and manages to quicken our pulses a bit even though we've heard it all before. -- Joe Brown. THE LITTLE PLAYWRIGHT --

(Smallbeer Theater Company, at Sanctuary Theater, through July 19)

The playwright's the thing in this cheeky parable about struggling artists, cunningly performed by the Smallbeer Theater Company. In one giddy hour filled with sly little swipes, playwright Rosemarie Caruso gives us the skinny on playwriting: "A nice, old shaggy profession you could scratch behind the ears. Not something that reeks of income, like an anesthesiologist." The stylized dizziness of this nicely acted shoestring-budget production concerns a fledgling playwright who endures snooty agents, smirking relatives, raving actors, eccentric directors, and her own envies and insecurities in the quest to get her words on a stage -- any stage. Theater insiders will likely laugh loudest, but anyone with a soft spot for show folk should enjoy it, too. You may never look at a play the same way again. -- J.B. SHERLOCK'S LAST CASE --

(Kennedy Center Eisenhower, through August 1)

Playwright Charles Marowitz has not devised one of the great stage mysteries, but he has produced a workable enough script that will serve to keep you off guard and mildly amused for the better part of two hours. Frank Langella, who once played a dashing Dracula, brings a similar panache to the role of Sherlock Holmes, targeted for extinction in the dank basement of an abandoned abattoir. The plot contains the requisite twists and turns, disguises and betrayals. Its chief novelty, however, is Marowitz's contention that Holmes is a bit of a know-it-all, who not only comes up with all the answers, but irritates those less prescient than he by terming his deductions "elementary." In "Sherlock's Last Case," he is lured out of the comfort of his Baker Street flat by Professor Moriarty's daughter, who seems to be extending an olive branch. The play is headed for Broadway, but it's probably better to look upon it as a piece of summer-stock escapism. -- D.R. A SONDHEIM EVENING --

(New Playwrights' Theater, through July 26)

The songs of Stephen Sondheim -- some of them well-known, others hardly known at all -- make up the fare of this salute to the most distinctive composer working in the American musical theater today. The cast numbers only seven -- five young singers and two pianists. But the moods they spin are multiple. Thje selections have been plucked from such ground-breaking musicals as "Sweeney Todd." "Follies," "Company" and "Pacific Overtures." Even when they're familiar (the overworked "Send in the Clowns," for example), New Playwrights' artistic director Peter Frisch manages to give them the novel interpretation. In all, a pleasant, unpretentious evening. -- D.R. CONTINUING

AS IS --

(Studio Theater, through July 19)

William Hoffman's play about the AIDS crisis, as it affects a New York photographer and his ex-lover, a promising writer, makes for tough, timely and emotionally brutal theater. A wellspring of compassion, however, underlies the evening's harsh realities. The Studio's production is ragged around the edges; its strength comes from the central characters -- played by Michael Chaban and Michael Wells (who recently replaced T.J. Edwards). In the end, "As Is" celebrates friendship and loyalty as much as it chronicles the ravages of a plague. -- D.R. BANJO DANCING --

(Arena's Old Vat Room, indefinitely)

Among the enduring Washington institutions -- the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the inaugural parade -- it will soon be necessary to include Stephen Wade, who tells tall tales, does jigs and plunks a variety of banjos in his one-man show. His zest undimmed, this affable performer is in his seventh year here, but you wouldn't know it. The show's as daisy-fresh as opening night. -- D.R. THE CRUCIBLE --

(Arena Stage, through July 12)

In times of gathering hysteria, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is particularly apt. A dramatization of the Salem witchcraft trials, the play was Miller's thinly masked response to the insanity of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Now 34 years old, the script has lost none of its emotional impact and, if anything, has gained a troubling new resonance. Staged in the round with elemental force by Zelda Fichandler, the Arena production erupts with ferocity and bristles with intelligence. There isn't a weak link in the large cast -- from the shrieking youths, pretending to be in Satan's clutches, to the sanctimonious judges who believe them. By the end, there are scorch marks on the stage floor. -- D.R. MAN WITHOUT A CONTRA --

(d.c. space, through July 15)

Gross National Product is back, bringing just what Powertown needs: a current events comedy revue that sends up the mighty and the fly-by-nightly. GNP, the cabaret offspring of SNL and SCTV, works sound effects and sight gags into a dozen imaginative sketches, most inspired by TV fodder and the news. There are plenty of sharp moments, as when Pope and Surgeon General square off over condoms in "The Papal's Court"; and "Cash-a-musha," a clever impression of a badly dubbed Japanese film about international trade imbalances. But the writers tend to take the easy way, relying on name recognition for laughs -- GNP assumes that merely mentioning Tammy Faye Bakker or Fawn Hall is hilarious. The ingratiating seven-member troupe's greatest strengths are boundless energy and an ability to turn morning headlines into evening belly laughs. -- J.B. THE MOUND BUILDERS --

(Source Theater's Mainstage, through July 11)

The characters in Lanford Wilson's 1975 drama are on an archeological dig in Southern Illinois that's threatened by an artificial lake. At the same time they are unearthing ancient Indian remains, they're uncovering some of their own long-buried emotions. "The Mound Builders" is dense with thought and feeling, but the Source production is fairly turgid going. Jane Beard is a sunny exception and Nancy Robinette, as a globe-trotting novelist on the edge of mental and physical collapse, adds a sharply sardonic note that manages to pierce through a generally foggy evening. -- D.R. MY GENE --

(Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, closes Friday; Saturday performances have been cancelled.)

The tormented relationship between Eugene O'Neill and his third wife, Carlotta Monteray, is explored in this one-woman show by O'Neill biographer Barbara Gelb. Actress Colleen Dewhurst, magnificent under just about any circumstances, plays Carlotta, still haunted 15 years after his death by the playwright she alternately mothered, badgered, revered, loved and hated. Gelb's script is a patchy affair and only Dewhurst's considerable magnetism keeps it from falling to pieces. -- D.R. NATIONAL DEFENSE --

(Woolly Mammoth Theater Company at WPA, alternating with "Savage in Limbo" through August 30)

Apocalypse how? In the fearsomely funny new play by T.J. Edwards, this is the way the world ends: "Not in the hands of the superpowers, but in the hands of some dink terrorist with 12 pounds of plutonium." Shot through with international paranoia, warning blasts of punk rock and spells of dire comedy and moonstruck romance, "National Defense" fulfills the promise of Edwards' Helen Hayes Award-winning "New York Mets," even as it delivers a threat. In an all-but-abandoned schoolroom in an unnamed U.S. metropolis, an anonymous and argumentative band of zealots holds the key to the city's survival. Terrorism -- in the form of nuclear blackmail -- has come to America. Some fine-tuning remains to be done -- Edwards may have an idea of how the world may end, but he's not quite as sure about how to finish his play. His "Defense," though, is thought-provoking fun -- its episodic scenes are full of messy vigor and surprising reversals. Director Jeff Davis gets sturdy performances from his five actors and it all happens on an inventive, evocative set in the Woollies' summer home at Washington Project for the Arts. -- J.B. NUNSENSE --

(Ford's Theatre, through July 26)

Five nuns decide to put on a talent show to raise money for their depleted burial fund (52 members of their order have died from eating tainted vichyssoise, prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God). On such a premise, Dan Goggin has built a tasteless, witless revue that has the nuns hitching up their habits and dancing (tap and ballet), doing ventriloquism acts, telling moldy jokes and indulging in vulgar double-entendres. Peggy Cass, not in top form, heads a cast that expends far too much energy on this drivel. -- D.R.