Mini Reviews Openings ALL THE WORLD -- (By the Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage's Shaw neighborhood space through Dec. 1)

Never trust an actor -- and that goes double in affairs of the heart. All those overwrought scenes! The despairing moans, the withering stares, the solicitous sighs: Are they being effected for you or posterity? This seed of a life-lesson is planted again and again in "All the World," a trio of one-acts by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. One of Molnar's dramatic fortes was as a confectioner, a spinner of frothy comedies, of which these playlets are prime examples. "A Prologue to 'King Lear' " finds a hammy Lothario in a backstage imbroglio with an irate husband; "Still Life" chronicles, in Cowardesque fashion, the romantic badinage of a pampered actress and the leading man she keeps on a short leash; "The Witch" is a dressing-room cat-and-mouse game between a meek hausfrau and the carnivorous starlet who bewitches her husband. Among the performers, Conrad Feininger is especially good as a skirt-chasing Lear with the baritone of an Edmund Kean and the ethics of a Watergate burglar; Steven Carpenter finds the shallowness beneath the surface of a vain and needy stage veteran; and Cody Lindquist adds just the right dose of vinegar to the role of a maid who really can't be bothered with housework.

-- Peter Marks

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN -- (By Theater J at the Goldman Theater at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center through Dec. 1)

At the start of this revival of "Death and the Maiden," a Schubert string quintet begins to play, and the face of a middle-aged woman appears upstage, framed by a spotlight. It's far from apparent at first the dreadful role another Schubert composition has played in the life of this woman, that the music is a trigger for memories so scalding that when asked to find words to describe them, she will spit them out in hysterical spurts. As played by the excellent Paula Gruskiewicz, the woman lives on the precipice of distress. Gruskiewicz's work is emblematic of the keen psychological realism of this new production of Ariel Dorfman's 1990 drama, revived here under the skillful direction of John Vreeke. She and the two actors who share the stage with her, Mitchell Hebert and John Lescault, offer intriguingly ambiguous portraits of three people forced to confront the morally complex, wrenching ramifications of state-sponsored torture. The setup for the evening itself strains credulity: Gruskiewicz's Paulina Escobar is at home with her lawyer husband Gerardo (Lescault) when a cultured stranger (Hebert) appears at the door. The voice is all too familiar to Paulina; she soon is convinced that this is the man who had tortured and raped her during her illegal detention 15 years earlier. Paulina does not pick up the phone, though. No, she picks up a gun, pistol-whips the stranger into unconsciousness and straps him to a chair in her living room, where she plans to force a confession out of him. Paulina's behavior begs the sorts of questions philosophers and ethicists like to chew over in symposia: to secure justice, does a victim have the right to adopt the tactics of her tormentors? The evening could easily deteriorate into an exercise in fist-pounding excess. But Vreeke and his acting trio follow an alternate route, choosing to view the production not so much as a thriller or a morality play than as a human drama about the psychic toll that trauma imposes.

-- P.M.

FAITH HEALER -- (At Rep Stage through Nov. 24)

Dark, destructive love -- between an Irish shaman and his woman on one level, between an artist and his art on another -- is the life force raging below the hauntingly placid surface of "Faith Healer," Brian Friel's often revived 1979 play currently receiving a knockout production at Rep Stage. Superbly cast and intelligently directed, the show immediately strikes the script's mother lode -- a fat vein of some of the human heart's more terrifying and opaque paradoxes. Frank (Nigel Reed), who may or may not be a real faith healer, and Grace (Julie-Ann Elliott), his mistress and possibly his wife (it's never clear which), and Teddy (Bruce Nelson), Frank's agent-manager, individually recount the events of "Faith Healer," which have all taken place long ago. In "Faith Healer," though, two of the characters are ghosts, and their accounts often differ, usually on some of the more telling, painful details. A potentially depressing tale succeeds largely because Kasi Campbell directs with an eye toward eliciting the characters' individual losses and pain, not whatever bitterness they may still harbor for each other. Ultimately you're left with the difficult and poignant feeling that, however sick and even perverted it was, and despite Frank's possessing a "killer instinct" to serve his talent, as Teddy tell us, the love between Frank and Grace was real and unconditional.

-- William Triplett

HOST AND GUEST -- (By Synetic Theater at Church Street Theater through Dec. 1)

Is that the beating of a drum you hear or the sound of your own heart pounding? Where this ravishing show is concerned, it could be either -- or both. Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, manage to unspool the threads of an epic yarn, a story of bravery and bloodletting in the Caucasus that has all the austere grace of an ancient cave drawing. "Host and Guest" is about the violation of an all-powerful taboo -- giving comfort to the enemy. In the Caucasus Mountains, Joqola, played by Paata Tsikurishvili, befriends another hunter, Zviadauri (Irakli Kavsadze), while both are pursuing a deer. The men forge a bond in a moment of unusual decency: Each has decided not to kill the other. When Joqola invites the stranger to his home, the village has a nervous breakdown: Doesn't he know Zviadauri is from the tribe with which Joqola's tribe has been locked in a dance to the death? Slaughter inevitably leads to more slaughter, a bloodbath that eventually overwhelms Joqola, his new friend and countless others on both sides.

-- P.M.

Continuing COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA -- (By the Fountainhead Theatre in association with the Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse through Tuesday)

Despite the efforts of a generally competent cast, director Steven Carpenter's reverent production of 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)

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 this 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.

-- W.T.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.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

MAN OF LA MANCHA -- ( At the National Theatre through Sunday)

Seven minutes of heaven is what you get for the more than two hours you'll have to invest in the soggy new "Man of La Mancha" at the National Theatre. Don't get me wrong: Those seven sweeps of the clock are pretty darn precious, considering that they are provided by Brian Stokes Mitchell, he of the satiny baritone. Mitchell is the heroic Don Quixote in the latest incarnation of this 1965 chestnut, and given the potency and richness of his voice, the glorious quest here could very well be a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. One golden throat, however, is not nearly enough to carry a musical, especially one that presents as many challenges as "La Mancha." It is clear that this production was assembled with care. The director is Jonathan Kent, who formerly headed London's vaunted Almeida Theatre, and the cast is bursting with potential assets, among them such proven Broadway pros as Ernie Sabella, Stephen Bogardus and, most promisingly, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza, the fallen woman Quixote redeems with his boundless optimism. This wildly uneven production as yet shows none of them at their best. Still, for consolation, there is always the payoff that you can be sure will come about an hour and 10 minutes into the show, when Mitchell steps into the light and briefly makes you believe in reaching for that unreachable star. As for the sensation of unbeatable musical theater, well, on this occasion anyway, that will have to remain the impossible dream.

-- P.M.

PRIVATES ON PARADE -- (At Studio Theatre through Nov. 17)

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, 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. 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.

-- P.M.

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

This 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 Saturday)

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.