NEW THIS WEEK

HAPPY DAYS --

(Through Oct. 21 at the Washington Stage Guild)

The tug between the average and the astonishing is a hallmark of the late great existential playwright Samuel Beckett's work, and it's summoned up most effectively in this production. Round, sixtyish Winnie (June Hansen) is immobile, buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Still, she goes on with her rituals -- brushing her teeth, applying lipstick, bolting back a bit of whiskey. Hansen manages to express herself most eloquently by means of her elastic face, alternately tender and piercing gaze, flashing smile and even the tilt of her head. The English-born actress's appreciation of Beckett's stripped-down language is everywhere apparent. Listening to this doughty creature speak and even sing, we learn a great deal about the indomitability of the human spirit. -- Pamela Sommers

THE PUPPETMASTER OF LODZ --

(In repertory with "In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe" through Nov. 18 at Studio Theatre)

A very strange, sad person lives in a Berlin garret on the Studio Theatre's stage. Samuel Finklebaum (Philip Goodman) survived the Holocaust, but life is unbearable, and so he hides, pretending the war is not over, with a large rag doll replacing his murdered wife. While his concierge tries to convince him the war is over, he works on his puppet masterpiece, a grim parody of what he saw in the camps. Gilles Segal's chilling tale summons not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but the self-imprisonment of the demented everywhere. There are elements that keep one from embracing the play fully -- we're unprepared for Finklebaum's sudden acceptance of life -- but Goodwin is especially lovely in some of the quieter moments, and the supporting cast is adroit. -- Megan Rosenfeld

REBEL ARMIES DEEP INTO CHAD --

(Through Oct. 21 at Round House Theatre)

The title is the headline a once-eager American journalist envisioned over a potential dispatch from Africa. But instead of becoming a glamorous foreign correspondent, Neal (Ernie Meier) is escorted out of Uganda at gunpoint, tormented by the knowledge that his "Truth" may have caused innocent people to lose their lives. He spends a stormy night with a cynical, down-on-his-luck reporter named Dove (James Slaughter) and two prostitutes Dove has hired to loosen Neal up: the older, world-weary Mary (Beverly Cosham) and the younger, suffering Christina (Oni Faida Lampley). With the help of playwright Mark Lee -- a onetime newspaper stringer in East Africa -- and excellent casting, these hoary archetypes are invested with fresh insights and textures. Too much of the conflict is couched within the vocabulary of journalism, but small, telling details create the atmosphere of another culture in this wonderfully sensitive production. -- M.R.

TRU --

(Through Oct. 28 at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore)

The only thing wrong with "Tru," Robert Morse's devastating portrayal of Truman Capote, is that it's not long enough. He leaves us wanting more -- more coruscating wit, more delicious dirt and more of the strangely endearing elf who invites us into his living room. Set in the week before Christmas of 1975, the play shows Capote at 51, facing the fallout from his just-published excerpt of "Answered Prayers," the novel about his dearest friends, the wealthy and super-wealthy whom he had mooched from and taken notes on for years. In some ways the portrait, written by Jay Presson Allen using the words Capote left behind, is a study of the neurotic as a middle-aged man -- fully aware of his faults and needs, but incapable of resisting them. Morse inhabits the part so intimately it is hard to imagine anyone else playing it. He's vicious, he's whiny, he's outrageous -- he's divine. - M.R.