NEW THIS WEEK

CERCEAU -- (Through Dec. 2 at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater)

Rooster (Charles Geyer), a Soviet engineer who has just inherited a dacha, assembles a group of lonely friends for a weekend in the country. Since almost all have been forced to live intimately with people they despise, the space and privacy of the old house prove intoxicating. They dance, flirt and play the children's game cerceau -- another forgotten pleasure. Like Chekhov's characters, they also talk and talk; unlike Chekhov, what they say is bereft of universal appeal. When Victor Slavkin's play opened in Moscow in 1985, Soviet audiences were stirred by seeing the meagerness of their lives addressed on stage. Unfortunately, Americans may find the translated version of a play based on the lack of Soviet housing less compelling. -- Megan Rosenfeld

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC? -- (At Washington Jewish Theatre through Nov. 4)

It takes courage for a woman to to try to make it on her own, according to playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Heroine Janie Blumberg (Paula Gruskiewicz) has a hypocritical best friend (Kimberly Schraf), a doctor boyfriend (James Glossman) and suffocating parents. But the mildly feminist point is almost lost in the thick underbrush of cliche characters and sitcom dialogue; Wasserstein can't stray away from an easy laugh. In the end, the acting saves the evening. This is a perfect case of performers far outclassing their material. -- John Strand

LARGO DESOLATO -- (At American Showcase Theatre through Nov. 11)

Tom Stoppard's translation of this 1984 play by Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia, is eminently satisfactory; what is harder to communicate is the physical, cultural and political geography that would give the play texture and impact. Nettles (Rick Cluchey, who also directed) is a philosophy professor who has imprisoned himself in his book-lined apartment, awaiting the arrival of those who would take him away, presumably to prison. Visitors see him as savior, friend or threat, but we don't know why. Nettles starts as a frantic, agitated person and ends as one. (For National Enquirer fans, Donna Rice -- billed as D. E. Rice -- has a small role in which she's no better or worse than hundreds of other ingenues.) -- M.R.

MILL FIRE -- (Through Saturday at the Gunston Arts Center)

For its inaugural production, the new Signature Theater has come up with a puzzling choice. Sally Nemeth's "Mill Fire" is a brooding, rather static essay on the loss, grief and insecurity caused by a deadly fire in an Alabama steel mill. Long on atmospherics but short on plot, the play employs elements of both dream and documentary, but never really settles comfortably into one style. Only Brilane Bowman as Marlene, a hard-lovin', chain-smokin' powder keg of a woman whose husband perishes in the fire, succeeds in making her character credible. -- Pamela Sommers