M. BUTTERFLY -- (National Theatre, through March 6)

A French diplomat in Beijing falls under the thrall of a seductive Chinese opera singer and passes state secrets to her, only to discover after a liaison of more than 20 years that the woman of his dreams is a man. David Henry Hwang's pre-Broadway drama is based on a real-life espionage case that rocked France a few years ago. But in this digressive, unfocused script, which employs many of the exotic conventions of the Peking Opera, the tale is just as improbable as it sounds. John Lithgow plays the diplomat -- a fool or a madman? -- with an intensity that holds laughter at bay, but fails to illuminate the bizarre character. B. D. Wong is a temptress any '40s Hollywood movie would be proud of. Hwang views their relationship as symbolic of the misconceptions that exist between East and West. But his drama leaves too many basic questions about this odd couple unanswered. Eiko Ishioka's set and costumes are handsome, and the production has moments of bold theatricality. All "M. Butterfly" ends up proving, however, is the old dictum about fact being stranger than fiction. David Richards. LES BLANCS -- (Arena Stage, through March 13)

Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer before she finished "Les Blancs," a drama about an African colony in the throes of revolution. Large of scale and ambitious of theme, it is nonetheless an unfinished play that cries out for dramatic refinements. Hansberry's husband, Robert Nemiroff, went on to put together the final text, but it does little to enhance Hansberry's reputation. In their tribal village, three brothers wrestle with the future of their country and what they will (or will not) do to bring about independence. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of a missionary wait with varying degrees of resignation for the uprising that will wipe them out. Most of three-hour play is made up of undramatized action and long passages of rhetoric. Then, in the final five minutes, the guns erupt, the dust flies and the blood flows. Director Harold Scott (who acted in the abortive 1970 Broadway production) and a large cast cannot bring this script to life. "Les Blancs" remains a treatise, better left in the author's trunk. D.R. THE NIGHT HANK WILLIAMS DIED -- (New Playwrights' Theater, through February 28)

The time is 1952. The setting is a bar in small-town Texas. And the hero of Larry L. King's play is an ex-high school football star, who dreams of becoming a famous country western singer. Although uneven and often clumsily plotted, the drama has a basic authenticity that keeps you attentive. Plays chronicling life and the death of dreams in the Texas outback are fast becoming a cliche, and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that King's hero won't make it beyond the county line. Still, the author has an eye for fresh details and he writes salty, rambunctious dialogue. The New Playwrights' production doesn't do the play full justice, but Elizabeth Duvall contributes a splendid, silvery performance as the would-be singer's former girlfriend, who got out of town for a while only to discover that things weren't much better down the pike. -- D.R. SCHEHERAZADE -- (Horizons Theater, through March 6)

An exceedingly unpleasant play by Marisha Chamberlain about a brutal rape and its aftermath, "Scheherazade" doesn't bring much illumination to its sordid subject. The title refers to the princess of the Arabian Nights, who spun a thousand and one tales to beguile the sultan who had threatened to put her to death. In a similar fashion, the heroine of Chamberlain's drama attempts to cajole and distract the assailant holding her at knife point. Mostly, however, this explicit evening registers as a protracted torture session and even rugged sensibilities will find it hard to stomach. Bill Whitaker and Carole Myers give performances of fierce, not to say painful realism, as the psychotic hunter and his prey. But unlike, say, "Extremities," a far better play on a similar subject, "Scheherazade" offers the spectator little more than Grand Guignol with simulated sex. -- D.R. ZASTROZZI -- (Round House Theater, through February 28).

Several actors were reportedly injured while rehearsing the swordfights and other assorted horseplay in "Zastrozzi" at the Round House Theater. Now, it's understood that fencing and fighting can be dangerous to actors. But the real occupational hazards in this production are built into George F. Walker's lame script. Zastrozzi introduces himself as the Master Criminal of Europe and embarks on a nebulously explained, but nonetheless obsessive, need to exact revenge on Verezzi, a deluded artist/saint. Walker marches his villain in a tedious straight line, scattering bodies on the stage until Zastrozzi gets to his prey. In his attempt to spoof adventure melodramas from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro, Walker tries to match the swordplay with wordplay. But he comes away with a metaphysical muddle, mixed up with some sadomasochistic nonsense that is neither funny nor sexy. And the swordfights are unforgiveably dull. Joe Brown. AN IDEAL HUSBAND -- (Washington Stage Guild, through February 21)

The more things change . . . Oscar Wilde's comedy "An Ideal Husband" may have been written in 1895, but it has a decidedly modern ring to it, involving as it does insider trading, sexual blackmail and politicians with Pasts. But unlike the second-rate scandals of today, the play's political maneuvering is all very discreet and proper, of course, and executive with wit, as was Wilde's way. It seems to be Washington Stage Guild's way, too. The young downtown company, which has been reinvigorating the classics, deserves a hand for reviving Wilde's most "serious" play at such an apt time and for assembling such a charming production. J.B. 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 COLORED MUSEUM -- (Studio Theater, through March 6)

There are 11 "exhibits" (that is to say, sketches) in "The Colored Museum," a sharp, furious, and sometimes furiously funny examination of the black psyche today. Most of Wolfe's characters find themselves grappling with conflicting identities -- whether it's Lala Lamazing Grace, a Josephine Baker-ish superstar who can't shake her backwoods upbringing; or a pinstriped executive, who finds it's "too emotionally taxing" to be black in the '80s. Wolfe has a delirious imagination and an eagerness to take on all comers -- from the upscale blacks in Ebony magazine to Lorraine Hansberry's sacrosanct "A Raisin in the Sun." The Studio's production is not as deft as the material, and some of the sketches never get off the ground. When they do, it's usually because either Valdred Doug Brown or Alexria Siglinda Davis is prominently involved. Still, it's clear Wolfe is an original talent, who turns museum-going into a vigorous exercise in house-cleaning.D.R. ENDGAME -- (Scena Theater at Source Theater Mainstage, through February 26)

The four characters in Samuel Beckett's celebrated drama are waiting for the world to end. One of them is stuck in a wheelchair; two others inhabit garbage cans, from which their grizzled heads protrude periodically. The fourth is an arthritic servant, who performs what remains of the household chores. Out of such stark, minimalist elements, Beckett has fashioned a surprisingly robust, often comic work about futility, and it is being given a vigorous staging by the Scena Theater. Despite the play's funereal themes, this production is closer to an Irish wake, which confronts death with bald histrionics, antic behavior and even a practical joke or two. Brian Hemmingsen is particularly vivid as the blind patriarch in the wheelchair -- King Lear as he might be performed on the vaudeville circuit. -- D.R. ENRICO IV --

(Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, through February 21)

Luigi Pirandello's 1922 play is a tantalizingly deceptive work, a veritable jigsaw puzzle for the theater. Its central character is a madman, who thinks he's Enrico IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and forces everyone in his presence to participate in his medieval masquerade. But is he crazy? What's really going on in this latter-day mock-up of Enrico's throne room? You'll have to listen closely to follow the ins and outs of the curious story and even then you may have trouble making all the pieces fit. But that's probably just the way Pirandello, who was endlessly fascinated by the games people play and the masks they wear, would have wanted it. Watching Arena's production is a little like finding yourself in a funhouse with distorting mirrors and tilting floors, only it's a funhouse for intellectuals. Stanley Anderson will keep you constantly off-guard as the volatile Enrico IV; by turns, he's childlike, chillingly lucid and crazy as the proverbial fox. Although the going can be slow on occasion, if you stick with the play until the end, you'll find yourself facing more than you bargained for. The arabesques and convolutions eventually lead to a stark, psychological wasteland, as telling as any Beckett or Pinter or Albee ever put on the stage. -- D.R. SAFE SEX --

(Source Theater Warehouse Rep through Sunday)

With its thoughtful production of Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex" -- the first since the play swiftly shut down on Broadway last spring -- Source Theater has reversed the play's fortunes, turning "Safe Sex" into a success. The play, like Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" a triad of one-acts, requires intimacy and integrity, which director Juanita Rockwell and her cast -- the remarkable Washington actor Michael Judge, in particular -- amply provide. Rockwell has given a unity and significant new production design to Fierstein's pointedly comic plays, which are about people living in a world where AIDS is a given. The writing is mostly focused and always funny -- few playwrights are as quick with a comeback or a stinging one-liner -- and though Fierstein occasionally succumbs to the maudlin, the cumulative evening works in spite of its obvious manipulation. Source is donating $1 from each ticket to the Whitman-Walker Clinic's AIDS Foundation.J.B. SHEAR MADNESS -- (Kennedy Center Theater Lab, for an open-ended run)

From Boston (where it has wrested from "Life With Father" the crown for America's longest-running play) comes this strange hybrid -- part participatory theater, part whodunit, part farce, and all of it as broad as the proverbial barn door. Midway through the first act, a murder is committed in a unisex hair salon and the audience is invited to join the investigation -- grilling the suspects and then voting for the guilty party. For the Kennedy Center run, the action has been set in Georgetown, and the script has been laced with local references. "Hyattsville" gets a big laugh. It doesn't take great powers of deduction to figure out that this enterprise is aiming low. The humor is strained, and the actors are pushing so hard you fear they'll burst a blood vessel. The worst offender's red-faced Bruce Jordan, whose cliche'd performance as a homosexual hairdresser sets back Gay Liberation by a decade or so. Jordan, a triple threat, also adapted the script from an obscure Swiss play and staged it. Frantic seems too mild an adjective for his efforts. What, you can only wonder, is a play like this doing at the Kennedy Center? -- D.R. SPLIT SECOND -- (Studio Theater, through February 21)

A black policeman, goaded by the racial insults of the white thief he has just arrested and handcuffed, shoots him in the heart at the start of Dennis McIntyre's drama. For the rest of the play, he wrestles with his conscience: Should he stand by the lie that he acted in self-defense or tell the truth and see his own life come undone? Provocative as the material is, it never ignites with real-life spontaneity, and the play's scenes register as successive rounds in a debate. The secondary characters -- the policeman's wife, father and best friend -- represent conflicting points of view, but beyond that they can't lay claim to a lot of flesh and blood. What McIntyre (a white playwright) is really putting on trial is the racism he finds endemic in American society. In a more visceral staging than director Samuel P. Barton has provided, the play might seem less manipulative. The Studio's production has the stolid and slightly numbing gravity of a latter-day Greek tragedy.D.R. TEN LITTLE CANDIDATES -- (d.c. space, indefinitely)

The talented satirical comedy troupe Gross National Product follows its long-running revue "Man Without a Contra" with "Ten Little Candidates," which includes several sketches from past revues and up-to-the-minute jabs like "A Caucus Line," "Veal: The Secret Cow of the CIA," "A Bonzo Christmas Carol" and the title skit, in which the candidates bump each other off one by one. The seven-member GNP, the cabaret offspring of programs like Saturday Night Live and SCTV, works with a minimum of props, building sound effects and sight gags into a series of sketches inspired by TV fodder and the nightly news. Sketches subject to change without notice -- just like real life. J.B. TROPICAL MADNESS -- (Scena Theater at Source Theater Main Stage, through February 21)

Scena Theater ends its inaugural three-play repertory on a breathless note with late-night performances of "Tropical Madness," a satirical romp by Polish playwright Stanislaus Ignacy Witkiewicz. Directed with a generous splash of slapstick and camp by Robert McNamara and featuring the way-over-the-top performances of Michael Judge and Kerry Waters, "Madness" plays, hilariously, like a distillation of every badly dubbed late-late-late movie you've ever seen. Witkiewicz places a handful of hapless, repressed Polish tourists on the rococo veranda of the Hotel Malabar in humid Rangoon, where they sip rainbow cocktails, behave monstrously toward the natives, and eavesdrop and interfere as adventurer Sydney Price falls instantly and disastrously for femme fatale Elinor Golders, supremely bored wife of corrupt rubber magnate Richard Golders. The play is meant to be a satire of exploitative colonialism, but whatever political subtext there is, it's all but eclipsed by the melodramatic romance between Price and Mrs. Golders. Still, Scena's sped-up send-up succeeds in making us laugh for the better part of 90 minutes.J.B.