NEW THIS WEEK

BEFORE IT HITS HOME -- (Through March 3 at Arena Stage)

Cheryl West's AIDS play is a hodgepodge of '50s realism, journalistic details, ambling storytelling, song and dance, family melodrama and jokes. It's clumsy in spots and cliched in others, and it shows the influence of television writing. It's also great theater: morally ferocious. A bone chiller. The story is simple enough. Wendal (Michael Jayce), a bisexual African-American sax player, contracts AIDS. He can bring himself to tell his male lover, but not the woman he wants to marry and has been sleeping with. Ill and poor, he goes home to his family. Some of them react well, some of them don't. Then he dies. Director Tazewell Thompson moves the play with assurance from naturalistic to iconographic, almost abstract, staging and back, bringing to the production some of the expressionistic power of opera. "Before It Hits Home" sounds like serious, lecturing theater, the kind you rush to avoid. Instead it is full of humor and life and the right kind of scariness -- the kind that keeps you on edge and unsure, afraid of what you'll see but unable to stop watching. -- Lloyd Rose

INDIAN LOVE CALL -- (Through Sunday at George Mason University)

With this premiere production of George Mason University's Theatre of the First Amendment, playwright and GMU professor Paul D'Andrea seems to have taken his cue from Oscar Wilde. His characters blithely announce their flaws, shift moods with frivolous abandon and tend toward the epigrammatic ("The quixotic, dear Rufus, has to be full tilt"). The characters are an assortment of wealthy, arty Manhattanites and Rufus, a bohemian old acquaintance who shows up after an absence of many years. He's looking for "India," defined for the audience as "human justice inspired by beauty" and capable of being found right here in the old U.S.A. Ulysses, the successful publisher in whose apartment the action takes place, is empty inside and jealous of his boyhood friend's freedom, and hopes to thwart Rufus in his quest. There's something intensely annoying about watching people who have everything material they could want complain. You're apparently meant to sympathize with their dissatisfaction and search for meaning. Instead you can find yourself thinking that if they're really so discontented with their lives, they can get jobs. -- L.R.

MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION -- (Through Feb. 24 at the Washington Stage Guild)

This George Bernard Shaw play was banned in England for 30 years. Even today, when almost nothing causes hysteria unless it brings in violence or excremental references, this play -- polite, well-spoken, very British -- has a real kick to it. Society doesn't yet have a response to Shaw's inflammatory central arguments: that in a male-run captalist society, a woman's body is her property, to trade on, profit from or otherwise control, and that any action is justifiable if it's a way out of poverty. Faced with the corruption of her mother's "profession" (running a string of brothels), the inadequacy of religion and aesthetics, and the shallowness of romantic love, the heroine, Vivie Warren (Lynn Steinmetz), reacts by becoming a workaholic. The handsome, throaty-voiced Nancy Linehan is blowzy and shrewd as Vivie's mother. She suggests something even more subversive than Shaw dared: that Mrs. Warren didn't become a prostitute only for practical reasons. -- L.R.

ODD JOBS -- (Through Feb. 17 at the Round House Theatre)

Set in a depressed area of Canada, "Odd Jobs" is a modest, gentle comedy about a young couple and the elderly woman neighbor toward whom they come to feel protective. Playwright Frank Moher brings in references to the problems of modern marriage (woman as breadwinner), economic hard times, the alienation of the Quebecois, etc. But like "Driving Miss Daisy," "Odd Jobs" isn't really a play about the social issues it attempts to address. In both plays, the real subject is the affection possible between unlikely people. -- L.R.