BUSHCAPADES: AN ADMINISTRATION ON THIN ICE! --

(Saturdays at the Bayou, indefinitely)

Always sensitive to the political Zeitgeist and ready to turn today's scandal into tonight's skit, the capital's resident satirical gang, Gross National Product, goes after Bush, Quayle and other headline hogs. The troupe has eight versatile actors, all of them as fast with impressions as with improvs. The regular Saturday night live show at the Bayou capitalizes on the big club's sound and lights for its customarily clever use of sound bites, voice-overs and other borrowed-from-TV techniques. In fact, as GNP grows ever more polished (and its teeth get sharper), it comes closer to becoming Washington's answer to Chicago's priceless Second City. -- Joe Brown

LES MISERABLES --

(National Theatre, through Oct. 13)

Back in Washington for a third engagement, this sweeping musical, taken from Victor Hugo's enduring novel, has lost none of its popular appeal. If anything, the production is better than ever. The difference is the National Theatre, a far more intimate facility than the Opera House, where the show played the two previous times. What's big about "Les Miz" seems even bigger, while the quiet, personal moments, no longer lost in faraway pools of light, gain in power and poignancy. Mark J. McVey heads an excellent cast as Jean Valjean, whose destiny takes him from a brutal prison yard to the portals of heaven. Along the way lie teeming marketplaces, cutthroat country inns, brawling city streets and a forbidding barricade raised in a Parisian cul de sac by students hoping to reignite the embers of the French revolution. The multi-generational saga has long been fodder for the cinema and, more recently, the television miniseries. Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn, aided by designer John Napier, have brought the epic form back to the theater in glory. Spectacle is no longer a dirty word and melodrama is exonerated as the crowd-pleasing form it is. -- David Richards

ON THE WAY HOME --

(at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, indefinitely)

It's been more than eight years since Stephen Wade -- banjo player, teller of tall tales and occasional dancer of jigs -- brought his assorted skills to Arena Stage. You can now detect a faint suggestion of gray in the mop of unruly curls that passes for his coiffure. But that's about the only concession he's made to time. Wade has put "Banjo Dancing" on the back burner and opened his current one-man show, "On the Way Home," in the Old Vat Room. As an entertainer, he's a delight -- a foot-stomping, eye-twinkling, listen-to-me-closely kind of guy in work boots and a small-town preacher's tight pin-striped suit. In short, an original. And his childlike wonder at a world that contains such a miracle as the banjo -- not to mention riverboats, back porches and hollows in the mist -- remains unabated. Like a kid just in from the woods, Wade wants nothing more than to share with you the treasures he's found, and he can't imagine your enthusiasm won't match his. -- D.R.

SHEAR MADNESS --

(Kennedy Center Theater Lab, indefinitely)

This strange hybrid is 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. 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. What, you can only wonder, is a play like this doing at the Kennedy Center? -- D.R.

STATEMENTS AFTER AN ARREST UNDER THE IMMORALITY ACT --

(Potomac Theatre Project, at Georgetown University's Hall of Nations, through Sunday)

Now in its fourth summer season, the Potomac Theatre Project aims to produce political and provocative plays that expand the usual menu of theater fare in Washington. In "Statements," by Athol Fugard, an interracial couple show both their furtive love for each other as well as the doomed nature of their illicit relationship, carried on in the back room of the small town library in which the woman (Carolyn Swift) works. She and her black lover (Bill Grimmette) are discovered after surveillance by a neighbor and then the police. Performed in the nude, it is an early Fugard work, elliptical, poetic, but somewhat frustrating because little information about the two central characters is provided to illuminate the larger issue. All performances are free and held in a small arena-style theater. -- Megan Rosenfeld

TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS --

(Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, through Sept. 2)

In Constance Congdon's eccentric comedy, anthropologists from outer space ponder life in the 20th century as it unfolds in a Colorado subdivision. They are bewildered by much of what they see, but in that respect, they're no different from the objects of their scrutiny. Congdon's earthlings can't make much sense of their own behavior, either. They're doing their best to cope with divorce, rebellious offspring, Alzheimer's disease and suburban sprawl. But they've lost their direction and don't know which way to turn. Congdon indulges in all sorts of structural innovations -- breaking her script into tiny, often unconnected scenes, some of which she runs forward and backwards. But a lot of her innovations are just so much camouflage, dressing up a script that otherwise would register as a fairly routine domestic drama. The Woolly Mammoth production is a good one, though, and Jane Beard, as the single housewife who's at the center of this disintegrating world, gives a lovely, resilient performance. -- D.R.