ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

(Shakespeare Theater at the Folger, through Jan. 31)

The title promises a happy ending, but Shakespeare's play is really far more ambiguous -- a story of hot pursuit and cool manipulation that throbs with dark impulses. Director Michael Kahn, however, choses to downplay them, giving us instead a panoramic view of the action, which is now set at the turn-of-the-century. Russell Metheny's scenery and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes make the production an art nouveaux pleasure to look at. And there are some strong performances -- most notably by Ted Van Griethuysen, as the ailing King of France. Still, it's hard to make psychological sense of the plot, in which Helena, one of Shakespeare's noblest heroines, goes to extraordinary lengths to reclaim Bertram, the caddish ahusband who abandons her after their wedding and has to be tricked into facing up to his vows. Why is she bothering? The Folger hasn't come up with any answers.

LIGHT UP THE SKY

(Arena Stage, through January 17)

Nobody knows theater people like theater people, and the late Moss Hart probably knew them better than most. His 1948 comedy about a rocky pre-Broadway tryout in Boston is a maliciously gleeful, abundantly entertaining expose of the theatrical temperament. They're all here -- the effusive leading lady, the crusty producer, the naive young playwright, the overly-sensitive director, plus half a dozen others, whose lives are bound up in the fate of an apparently glum allegory called "The Time is Now." We see them before the opening night, when sweetness and charity prevail; and then afterwards, when they think they've got a flop on their hands and their true natures surge to the fore. Shrewdly staged by James Nicola and acted with side-splitting accuracy by the Arena cast, the evening does just what Hart's autocratic producer wants to do: it thrusts "a roman candle in the tired face of showbusiness." This is the one for the holidays.