Openings COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA -- (By The Fountainhead Theatre in association with the Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse through Nov. 12)

Despite the efforts of a generally competent cast, director Steven Carpenter's reverent production of "Come Back, Little Sheba," William Inge's 1950 melodrama about a recovering alcoholic and his childish wife, never takes us to the depths of pathos that Inge intended. The story concerns the emotional and sexual frustrations of a childless couple, Doc Delaney (Jim Jorgensen) and his frumpy wife Lola (Charlotte Akin), who fills her days with gossip and fantasy. Living more in hope than reality, she goes to the porch each day to call for Little Sheba, the family dog that ran away years before. Both Doc and Lola find their consolation in Marie, a pretty, cheerful college girl who rents a spare room in their house. To Lola, she's a source of vicarious romance; to Doc, she's the idealized "nice girl." Given the maudlin material, "Come Back, Little Sheba" can be tough going for modern audiences. Yet it was brave in its day for its frank treatment of alcoholism and sexuality and its bold contention -- -years before the women's movement took hold -- -that merely keeping house was a recipe for discontent. How then, to get past the archaic storyline and sometimes corny language to find the beating heart of the story? Carpenter seems not to have found it.

-- Dolores Whiskeyman

THE GLASS MENAGERIE -- By the Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse through Nov. 17)

"The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams's first major play, which has long since entered the pantheon of plays we've all seen possibly too many times, still has the power to move you. Deeply. That is, assuming (1) a production realizes it isn't Tom, the look-at-me-and-my-awful-memories narrator, who is the epicenter of this sad tale, but Amanda, his toxically self-absorbed mother, and (2) you have an actress who can make the character something more than that. As played by Linda High in the Keegan Theatre's intelligent and sensitive production, Amanda earns not only your serious attention, but also your respect and sympathy. Ultimately, with the help of director Brian Hemmingsen, Amanda is a monster you feel sorry for, a suffocating matriarch as pathetic as she is deadly. Revolutionary when it debuted in 1944 because of its lyrical dialogue and expressionistic staging, Williams's memory play, as he called it, also captivated audiences with a nakedly autobiographical story. Tom appears to us in the present, a haunted poet-artist recalling the last months he lived with his mother and his older sister, Laura, "a cripple" who collects glass animals. Like Williams's own mother, Amanda is an aging, abandoned wife who lives on memories of her glorious Old South youth -- filled with boundless promise and at least 17 gentlemen callers, as she constantly reminds everyone. Amanda emerges as the fully fleshed embodiment of a theme Williams would explore in detail in later plays -- the past as a present from which you're always trying to escape.

-- William Triplett

KIKI & HERB IN PARDON OUR APPEARANCE -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. through Nov. 17)

How tasteless is "Kiki & Herb in Pardon Our Appearance"? Well, at one point one character says she's happy to see young faces in the audience because "between AIDS and Alzheimer's we don't have a fan left over 40." It's just one of many moments when you may not know whether to laugh or gag at this look at a boozed-out, broken-down pair of lounge lizards and the very big garbage can that is their life. Odds are you'll laugh, though -- raucously, unavoidably and just about incessantly. Why? Because "Kiki & Herb" is a wickedly sly piece of work, as recognizably human as it is garishly outre -- a hilarious tour de trash that has at its center a very normal, wounded heart. Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman have spent the last five years performing respectively as Kiki and Herb, two aging entertainers who seem to have always been so bad they can't even claim has-been status. Anyone easily offended by, say, the dove of peace suffering a brain tumor or the idea that being gay, Jewish and retarded wasn't always so "trendy," as Kiki tells us, will not be amused. But anyone who finds it grimly funny that American pop culture can debase just about anything for a profit may not be able to keep his sides from splitting.

-- W.T.

Continuing DRIVING MISS DAISY (At Olney Theatre Center through Nov. 3)

Alfred Uhry's sentimental Southern drama about an elderly Jewish matron and the unworldly-wise black man her son hires to be her chauffeur has won every honor short of a Nobel, including a Pulitzer Prize for drama and an Oscar for the film version, which starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. In other words, it's difficult to strike out with "Daisy," and the Olney Theatre Center maintains the winning streak. Director Thomas W. Jones II's new production of the oft-performed play goes down like grits and cheese, smooth and comforting, the theater equivalent of home cooking. Halo Wines, as Daisy Werthan, a proud, stubborn matriarch who can't quite acknowledge her advancing infirmity and dyed-in-the-wool prejudices, and Keith N. Johnson, as Hoke Colburn, the equally proud and stubborn driver who challenges Daisy's assumptions about companionship with his genteel goodness, are performing in deep shadows. Tandy and Freeman put their stamp on these roles in the 1989 movie. While Hoke and Daisy's stations in life are vastly different, the playwright suggests that their bond is forged by a mutual understanding of suffering; they are both the "other" in the postwar South, though Daisy has a tougher time accepting this.

-- Peter Marks

EL LUGAR IDEAL (THE IDEAL PLACE) -- (By Gala Hispanic Theatre at the Warehouse through Sunday)

"El Lugar Ideal" ("The Ideal Place") is a satire by Hector Quintero about the humiliating effort to eke out a lower-middle-class existence in threadbare Havana. Cristina, husband Pablo and son Homero have just traded their house in the countryside for a one-bedroom flat in the city, in hopes of finding some financial security in the urban hostelry business, and Isabel Scarpetta is to be their first guest. The comic vein for this Gala Hispanic Theatre production seems rich: a bed-and-breakfast that has only one bed, forcing the desperately put-upon proprietors to sleep on the floor while the lodger runs roughshod over their lives. Such ironic material, however, requires delicate treatment, and director Hugo Medrano has unwisely opted for the broadest kind of gestural comedy, the sort filled with rolling of the eyes and pained gazes toward Heaven. The effect is not very funny. However it's rife with Quintero's wry observations about the political and practical peculiarities of contemporary Cuba. The play is performed in Spanish by a four-member cast, with offstage voices providing simultaneous translation in English via headsets. -- P.M.

LATE NITE CATECHISM -- (At the West End Theatre through Nov. 24)

This comedy has a nifty gimmick: The audience is at an adult education class, and the subject is Catholic doctrine. Technically, this play by Chicagoans Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan is a solo show, but, in fact, the cast swells to nearly a dozen by the end of the evening. Who are these extra characters? Audience members -- students, that is -- whom the eagle-eyed Sister in charge singles out for their behavior, good and bad. The steady give-and-take with the crowd at Alexandria's West End Theatre (normally the West End Dinner Theatre, but rented to Phoenix Productions for this no-dinner show) makes the well-traveled "Late Nite Catechism" a real performer's piece. Jodi Capeless keeps the audience in high spirits without ever losing control of her class.

-- Nelson Pressley

THE LEARNED LADIES -- (At Catalyst Theater, performing in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, through Saturday)

There are many moments during Catalyst Theater's smart, sassy and compact production of "The Learned Ladies" when you actually forget it's among Moliere's least interesting works. The bouncy elan of director Jeremy Skidmore's take on Moliere's ungainly swipe at intellectual pretension gives the piece much-needed witty buoyancy. For the most part the ensuing smiles easily lift you over the rough spots. The set-up is vintage Moliere: Henriette (Diane Cooper-Gould) and Clitandre (Peter Wylie) want to marry, much to the pleasure of Chrysale (Tim Carlin), her haute bourgeoisie Dad. But Philaminte (Cam Magee), Henriette's even hauter bourgeoisie Mom, intends to wed her to Trissotin (Jesse Terrill), a bad poet who exploits Philaminte's delusions of being a literary intellectual. Chrysale's sister Belise (Ellen Young), suffers the same delusion and one more, thinking every man she has ever met is hopelessly in love with her. (She's so wrong.) Meanwhile, Henriette's similarly snooty pointy-head of a sister, Armande (September Marie Merkle), can't stand that Clitandre, whose attentions she once spurned, now woos Henriette. There isn't a bad performance among the 11-member cast. It's easy to see why the still relatively young Catalyst Theater, in only its third production, is one to keep watching.

-- W.T.

THE MISANTHROPE -- (At Arena Stage's Fichandler Theater through Nov. 3)

In Penny Metropulos's coolly elegant staging of "The Misanthrope," the most terrifying phrase anyone can utter is "I hope I can be frank." The 17th-century Paris that she conjures at Arena Stage is a cloak-and-dagger world where the cloaks are drop-dead couturier frocks and the daggers are rhymed couplets that drip venom like melting frosting. Although Metropulos has anchored the play with two excellent actors, Michael Emerson as the compulsively and self-defeatingly blunt Alceste, and Nance Williamson playing Celimene, the jaded object of his adoration, the sharp characterizations by the supporting players are what lend the play a full-bodied air. Among others, John Leonard Thompson, as Alceste's long-suffering friend Philinte; Naomi Jacobson as pinch-faced, waspish Arsinoe; and Lawrence Redmond, grandly foppish as Clitandre, are misers in the best theatrical sense; none of them wastes a precious word. "The Misanthrope" is a comedy, and Alceste is an aesthete and gadfly who has an absolute belief in being "excessively sincere," a stance that gets him into all kinds of scrapes with friends, foes and the Parisian powers-that-be. Ultimately, this "Misanthrope" is all about about the pervasive pressures to keep up appearances, to conceal one's true nature. Although this may be a more therapeutic age that encourages confession, "The Misanthrope" reminds us that the impulse to lie to the world remains just as powerful.

-- P.M.PRIVATES ON PARADE -- (At Studio Theatre through Nov. 10)

The sun is setting on the British Empire, and who better to bid it a withering adieu than Floyd King? Er, make that Noel Coward. No wait, that is King up there, and he is in top form, delivering the Cowardesque ditty that sets in motion the second act of "Privates on Parade," Peter Nichols's tuneful satire of England's waning days as a colonial power. The 1977 "play with songs," getting jaunty and thoroughly sophisticated handling here by the Studio Theatre, is an actors' paradise: Each of the nine major roles is a beaut, and director Joy Zinoman has to her credit filled them with actors who prowl this precinct as confidently as panthers. The cast skillfully transforms the Studio stage, conjuring postwar Malaya of 1948 and the military installations where a song-and-dance troupe is dispatched to buoy the beleaguered British cause. This ragtag outfit, based on Nichols's own experiences in such a unit, is second-rate English music hall on tour, the USO with Benny Hill instead of Bob Hope. But the entertainers are more than hacks. They are representatives of the mosaic of forces, new and old, that will come into ever-intensifying conflict as British society tries to reconcile itself to its reduced status in the new world order. King plays the juiciest role in "Privates," that of Terri Dennis, a swishy theater buff and unlikely army captain. King is a paragon of drollery, infusing the proceedings with a cocktail hour urbanity. It's not difficult to draw parallels between the predicaments of Nichols's characters and those faced by any modern superpower that spreads its cultural influence to distant places and feels the consequences.

-- P.M.

SHEAR MADNESS -- (At the Kennedy Center Theater Lab indefinitely)

The interactive murder mystery, set in a Georgetown beauty parlor, is not so much a whodunit as a howtheydunit. How has a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes found success in the nation's capital for 15 interminable years? Congressional careers tumble, administrations founder, even empires fall. With the passing in January of New York's 42-year-old "The Fantasticks," the Kennedy Center's "Shear Madness" is now the third-longest-running play in the country, surpassed only by its sister production in Boston, 22 years old and going strong and the soon-to-close "Les Miserables" on Broadway. I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. It's all low-rent Agatha Christie. A murder has been committed in the apartment above the Shear Madness unisex salon of Tony Whitcomb (Bob Lohrmann). Suddenly the lights go up, and the detectives investigating the case (Aaron Shields and Keith Kupferer) announce to the audience that it's our job to help solve the crime. Why would one of the world's premier showcases for theater tie up one of its stages for a decade and a half with any play, let alone one so inconsequential?

-- P.M.

THREE SISTAHS -- (At MetroStage through Dec. 1)

The sisters in Thomas W. Jones II and William Hubbard's mushy "Three Sistahs" have big problems -- and even bigger voices with which to sing about them. Olive, the oldest, craves a baby. Marsha, the middle one, could use a good marriage counselor. Irene, the youngest, wants an escape from the suffocating ennui of her dead-end job. Trapped in the cul-de-sacs of their unhappiness, they gather at the Washington home of their late parents one evening in the autumn of 1969 after the funeral of their brother who has been killed in Vietnam. Far into the night they reminisce and fight and grieve and pout and (with the help of a backup band) pour out their aching hearts to one another. Olive (Bernardine Mitchell), Marsha (Crystal Fox) and Irene (Desire DuBose) fill the air with rhythm, blues and recrimination. Jones gives the women a lot of sitcom shtick. What he does not provide until long into the evening is an understanding of why the relationships among these three women are important, what makes this meeting so essential. The three actresses have a very tough task, adding flesh to characters who often seem mere collections of familiar attributes. All are in excellent voice, especially the imposing Mitchell, whose presence can be felt in every swivel of the hip and arching of the eyebrow. Then again, you get the feeling that she might make the reading of a cookbook sound momentous.

-- P.M.

UBU ROI -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Calvary Methodist Church through Nov. 9)

Every drama student knows the story of "Ubu Roi." The absurdist play caused a sensation -- and nearly a riot -- when it opened in Paris in December 1896: The first word of dialogue was a vulgar term for excrement that had never been uttered before on a Parisian stage (at least so that an audience could hear). The shouted epithet convulsed the crowd; it took a full 15 minutes to restore order. More than a century later the work, by a renowned prankster, Alfred Jarry, may leave a theatergoer wondering what all the fuss was about The allegorical tale of a carnivorous civil servant who usurps the king of Poland's throne and murders half the country in the process -- a takeoff on "Macbeth" -- "Ubu Roi" can easily fall prey to a company's intellectual pretensions. So less eggheadedness and more physicality is probably the way to go, an approach Rorschach Theatre takes to heart in an engaging, gymnastic production, one whose highly combustible power source is the six fired-up young actors who portray more than 40 characters, among them potentates, peasants and pets. The "Ubu Roi" they put together may be 90 percent perspiration, but it's the kind of workout that makes the exertion seem worthwhile.

-- P.M.