NEW THIS WEEK

CANDIDA -- (Through Feb. 10 at the Center Stage in Baltimore)

Lively and entertaining, this production whizzes right over the sand traps of didacticism that playwright George Bernard Shaw was ornery enough to lay down through long stretches of the play. The explosive comic and intellectual energy in "Candida" is sparked by Shaw's version of the eternal triangle of husband, wife and lover. Pioneering socialist clergyman James Morell is married to all-knowing Candida, whose would-be lover is the impulsive, romantic young poet Eugene Marchbanks. As Shaw's excuse for an analysis of the power structure of marriage and a high-spirited satire of the male animal, "Candida" is short on plot; the men tend to strike attitudes and then do nothing to display them. But director Rick Davis largely avoids this problem with brisk comic staging and his astute male casting. Richard Poe's Morell is basically a good fellow, who keeps staring at the hysterical Marchbanks as if he can't believe him. Quivering like jello, Benjamin White occasionally suggests Edward Scissorhands in his cartoon of a "sensitive" poet. Unfortunately, Shaw takes the virtuous Candida seriously and the result is perhaps the most obnoxious female character in English drama. Joyce O'Connor brings some dry wit to the role, but she can't help playing into its annoying aspects: the Eternal Feminine as Mary Poppins. Yet for the pleasures of Shaw's stagecraft, we gladly endure his lectures. -- Lloyd Rose

EASTERN STANDARD -- (Through Feb. 16 at Source Theatre)

Richard Greenberg's satire on a bunch of yuppies who take a bag lady into their Hamptons beach cottage is a clever, shallow little comedy. The play neatly contains three couples who meet in a Manhattan restaurant: architect Stephen (the immensely likable Carter Reardon) and Phoebe (Kimberly Schraf), the ex-Wall Streeter he falls for; Phoebe's brother Peter (Rick Foucheux), a one-time heartbreaker now ill with AIDS who is fallen for by Stephen's old friend Drew (Kevin Reese); and two misfits, Ellen (Brilane Bowman), a spacey waitress, and May Logan (the gifted and eccentric Cam Magee), the bag lady. Yuppies are one of the easiest satirical targets possible, still, Greenberg -- inventing dishes like "grouper tortellini" and having Drew hail the waitress with a cry of "Oh, actress!" -- definitely scores his points. Then he moves the action to the beach and promptly goes in over his head. He raises real problems -- AIDS, homelessness, middle-class insularity, selfishness -- and then can't deal with them any better than the characters he satirizes. -- L.R.

FIRST NIGHTS -- (Through Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington)

This totally ungroovy, absolute bummer of a '60s-inspired musical brings new meaning to the word "cliche." Commissioned by the Washington Jewish Theatre as part of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington's multi-disciplinary project "The '60s: How They Changed Us," "First Nights" tells the tale of Joshua Gersh, a cynical professor of ethnic studies mired in a past of love beads and revolutionary rhetoric. Librettist/director James Glossman has opted for a tired show-within-a-show format, in this case an endless rehearsal of a musical-in-progress by a quartet of contemporary student performers at a fictional university. Composer/lyricist Stephen Randoy's score is musically schizo, and lyrics like "It's time to speak out/And maybe it's time to freak out" are downright embarrassing. Most of the performers rise above the material, but one would do a lot better to rent the video of "Hair" or put on a Hendrix or Joplin tape. -- Pamela Sommers