NEW THIS WEEK

HERBERT III and MIXED BABIES -- (In repertory through Dec. 16 at Washington Stage Guild)

Despite the fact that these one-act plays both take place during the mid-'70s, in the wee hours of the morn, in African-American households, they could not be more different. Ted Shine's "Herbert III" is an intermittently amusing slice of sitcom, set in the bedroom of a middle-class couple whose teenage son, Herbert III, is very late coming home. Jewell Robinson and Bill Grimmette do as much as they can with the predictable script, by turns fretting, snoring, squabbling and reminiscing the night away. Infinitely more inventive and thoroughly captivating, Oni Faida Lampley's "Mixed Babies" focuses on one typically hilarious/frustrating/memorable night in the lives of five 16-year-old girls. The fact that they're played by a mature quintet of stellar actresses -- Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, Namu Lwanga, Jewell Robinson, Donise Stevens and Becky Woodley -- helps matters immensely. -- Pamela Sommers

OUR TOWN -- (Through Jan. 6 at Arena Stage)

As Arena Stage's revival lovingly affirms, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" remains inspiring, exasperating, challenging and heart-rending. Robert Prosky has returned to Arena after a 10-year hiatus to play the Stage Manager, who introduces us to the village of Grover's Corners, N.H. Although friendly and accessible, he lacks the vigor needed for theatrical communication. But in the many small moments of truth upon which this play relies, the production is sound as a church bell, happily marrying the demand for pantomimed props with skilled stagecraft. Other actors (in a multiracial cast) offer some lovely performances, including Jarlath Conroy as the lonely, drunken choirmaster; Christina Moore and David Aaron Baker as the young couple Emily and George; and Tana Hicken as Emily's mother, worrying about her daughter's future. The play's power today lies in its connections to our common cultural memories and to our daily trials and sadnesses. "We all know that something is eternal," says the Stage Manager, ". . . and that something has to do with human beings." Maybe that something is "Our Town." -- Megan Rosenfeld

OVER FORTY -- (Through Sunday at Takoma Theatre)

Subtlety is not the point of this entertaining but cliche-ridden show. Like countless television sitcoms, this tribute to middle-aged black women offers up a host of much-discussed issues in a predictable, feel-good format. Librettist Celeste Walker touches on everything from adultery to menopause, with trips down memory lane. Weldon Irvine, responsible for the music, lyrics, musical arrangement and direction, has come up with a compositional style that blends pop, jazz and gospel into one easy-to-swallow package, often eliciting nostalgic yelps and sighs from the audience. Thankfully, the performers -- Eunice Newkirk, La'Rita Gaskins, Lady Peachena and the winning Marisa Francesca Turner -- imbue the simplicity with their considerable comedic and musical gifts. -- P. S.