Mini Reviews Openings

THE DAY ROOM -- (At Kennedy Center's AFI Theater through Jan. 12)

Whatever else Rob Leo Roy does in his acting career, he will always be able to point with pride to an illustrious stint on television. Er, make that as a television. Roy is a shoo-in this year for best impersonation of a household appliance. In this revival of Don DeLillo's surrealist farce set in a mental ward, Roy transmits an entire broadcast day -- news, talk shows, infomercials, morning exercise programs, soap operas -- while trussed up in a straitjacket and seated in a wheelchair. He's so good as a TV set that you keep praying the other actors will never turn him back off. His idiot box is one of the more watchable things about "The Day Room," a play that Woolly Mammoth first presented in 1989. The evening is a vaudeville of absurdist notions about identity, about the masks we put on, about the self-justifying idea of reality that we construct for ourselves. But even if the clever conceits don't add up to much -- if the show feels more like an extended sketch than a fully integrated drama -- there is still an elegant mind at work or, rather, at play here. It's cerebral tomfoolery of a fairly enjoyable variety. The dullness of everyday existence and the entertaining serendipity of coincidence; an obsession with the minutiae of life as well as with death; the way technology can guide our thoughts and words: These are some of the subjects that fascinate DeLillo. As with other writers who turn to the theater, he demonstrates a love of plot manipulation, though in his case it's at the expense of character development. In "The Day Room," however, DeLillo has enough balls in the air to keep us engaged for most of the evening. You can tell that DeLillo is a worshipful student of the stage; "The Day Room" echoes with the voices of theater's great absurdists, Beckett and Pirandello. DeLillo, however, casts no indelible impressions of his own. Just as Roy re-creates only snippets of television, "The Day Room" mostly surfs from notion to notion, producing a funny, if fuzzy, picture.

-- Peter Marks

THE NIGHTINGALE -- (At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Sunday)

Once there was an emperor of China who had everything beautiful in his life but music. The poor fellow never had heard the nightingale sing, but he was an emperor, so he sent out his courtiers to find one and bring it back to the palace. How that nightingale sang! She sang and sang and sang -- until some buttinsky sent the emperor a wind-up bird that never took a rest or asked for a drink of water. In ancient China, as in modern life, the true artist is sometimes eclipsed by lesser imitations. For the rest of the story, you'll have to check out "The Nightingale." A dance-driven play with music, it is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's retelling of a Chinese folk tale. Conceived by choreographer Dana Soon Tai Burgess, it was written and directed by Mary Hall Surface and features music by David Maddox. Intended for theatergoers ages 5 and up, the show might appeal to an even younger crowd. The night I saw it, one little guy next to me, who was about 9 months old, leaned on the seat in front of him and stared at the stage. He was quiet for most of the performance, which, as any parent can tell you, is quite an endorsement. A servant (Lisa Woo) narrates the emperor's story through words and song. Five other performers present the scenes in dance. While the music takes its inspiration from the original source, an ancient Chinese fable, the movement draws on several styles, particularly ballet. One stunning number is especially acrobatic, as a masked figure representing death enters the scene on the backs of two other dancers. It's a delightful package that young audiences will appreciate as much for its clever movement and costumes as for the story itself.

-- Dolores Whiskeyman

TELL ME ON A SUNDAY -- (At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 12)

If this show were any wispier, it would slip between the cracks in the floor of the Eisenhower Theater and evaporate in the Kennedy Center's basement. Barely clocking in at 70 minutes, the show is a chronicle of the fairly uneventful travails of a hapless Englishwoman as she dumps, and is dumped by, a succession of American men in Queens, Greenwich Village and Beverly Hills. Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music for this one-woman sung-through piece in the 1970s, before his productions had claws, or chandeliers, or killer staircases. It's more cabaret than theater, really, and what it's doing in a hall as vast as the Eisenhower is a mystery. It cries out for an intimate setting, where a performer -- in this case, the adorable Alice Ripley, as the protagonist Emma -- might stand a chance of making a compelling connection with an audience. Ripley puts more flesh on Emma's bones than the work's creators had any right to expect. "Tell Me on a Sunday" purports to slip into the skin of that familiar oddity, the attractive woman with no talent for finding a mate. Emma meets men easily: Sheldon, a movie producer; Joe, in the software business; Paul, a married man from the suburbs. The relationships, though, do not hold them, or her, for reasons that the musical looks at in only the most superficial ways. For Emma is all wrapping and no present. What "Tell Me on a Sunday" does for Ripley is provide the kind of showcase that should inevitably lead to bigger and much better things. On this evening she may hit all the appropriate notes, but the rest of us are still left with a hollow ring.

-- P.M.

Continuing THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER -- (At the Kennedy Center Lab through Sunday)

Ken Ludwig's fast-moving and bright, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is based on Mark Twain's coming-of-age story and emphasizes the adventures of its title character and his friends, Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn, as they cope with life in a 19th-century river town. With its banjo-driven score by country music writer Don Schlitz and its aw-shucks-ma'am approach to storytelling, this "Tom Sawyer" overflows with innocence and affection for a time long past -- or, perhaps, a time that never really was. Ludwig does an impressive job of condensing a full-length musical into 60 minutes while managing to hit major plot points and working in Schlitz's pop country songs. A strong cast of experienced musical theater performers deliver the goods with conviction. R. Scott Thompson is by turns earnest and wistful as Tom, playing off Amy McWilliams's prim Aunt Polly. And Sean MacLaughlin is a game, if rather preppy, Huck Finn.

-- D.W.

BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL -- (At Studio Theatre Secondstage through Sunday)

Not since Audrey II took root many full moons ago has there been a bloodsucking musical-comedy creation as endearingly voracious as Edgar, the boy descended from a bat. Audrey II, you may recall, was the jiving houseplant hooked on red corpuscles in "Little Shop of Horrors," the campy pop musical that made delicious sport of Hollywood splatterfests. Now comes Edgar, Audrey II's theatrical descendant, to send tingles up the spines of the tormented denizens of Hope Falls, W.Va., in "Bat Boy: The Musical," a silly, raucous, shameless spoof sprinkled liberally with sophomoric mayhem -- and yes, even a bit of wit. "Bat Boy," by a trio of young Los Angeles writers -- Laurence O'Keefe supplied the score and Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming collaborated on the book -- is not quite in "Little Shop's" league; the show goes on long after the joke has worn out. But if you're in the right frame of mind -- in other words, if smarty-alecky, college-level antics don't send you rummaging for the Advil -- it might be an amusing night out. The production has one especially useful secret weapon: its young star, Patrick O'Neill. The story, apparently lifted from the pages of a supermarket tabloid detailing the purported discovery of a feral boy living in a cave, gives the writers of "Bat Boy" license to poke fun at all sorts of pop and serious culture, from the joys of junk food to the work of Stephen Sondheim. The plot is an inane smorgasbord involving, among other things, a mad scientist, a slaughterhouse, a revival meeting and the god Pan. Some of this is painfully over the top and all of it is unnecessarily elongated. Yet the show does deliver the goods now and then, particularly in the middle part of the tale. The 10-member cast has the requisite spirit, and the unfinished space the show inhabits, in a building adjacent to the main Studio Theatre complex, feels like an appropriate home for a piece with such raw energy.

-- P.M.

THE CHRISTMAS CAROL RAG -- (At Signature Theatre through Sunday)

Signature Theatre presents a gender-bending musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic that transforms cranky, misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge into cranky, misanthropic Evelyn Scrooge, and another seasonal lesson about the personal growth that comes with selflessness. In "The Christmas Carol Rag," playwright Norman Allen transfers the action to melting-pot New York in 1911, and inserts an eclectic list of standards, from the traditional "Deck the Halls" to the whimsical "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go?" The Evelyn of the tale is played by the formidable Donna Migliaccio, guided through the evening by Signature's artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, fresh from his successful stewardship of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center. With such an impressive roster, expectations run high, even if the vehicle is a wintry war horse. Surprisingly, though, this ragtime "Christmas Carol" is rather thin gruel. Hobbled by some tired shtick -- making the Ghost of Christmas Past a Borscht Belt comic is a particular cause for rolling of the eyes -- the production muddles through with few emotional crescendos.

-- P.M.

THE CRUMMLES' CHRISTMAS CAROL -- (At MetroStage through Jan. 5)

If you've read the novel or seen the stage version of Dickens's "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," you are already acquainted with the egregious Vincent Crummles and the rest of his histrionic theater troupe, the worst collection of actors this side of Bottom and the other spaced-out revelers of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." In Nick Olcott's extremely slight new comedy, "The Crummles' Christmas Carol," the family troupe moves to center stage. It is the conceit of Olcott that the actors are touring the States with a production of "A Christmas Carol," which, naturally, they don't perform with any distinction, or even with much in the way of talent. That's not to say the actors playing the Crummles family are without gifts: The cast includes the estimable Michael Tolaydo as Vincent and Catherine Flye as his actress wife. It's just that the show is a pretty lame vehicle. All the devices are predictable: There are lots of crashing sounds offstage, and nasty gibes onstage by members of the eternally warring clan. Two dozen songs, music hall ditties and Christmas carols alike, are performed. The audience is encouraged to sing along with a couple of them, and a theatergoer is even coaxed onto the stage to play the role of Tiny Tim.

-- P.M.

LES MISERABLES -- (At the National Theatre through Jan. 4)

The tunes still soar and the tale still draws a tear. And if the story, boiled down from Victor Hugo's huge 1862 novel, often seems an episodic jumble (despite helpful program notes and projected titles with dates and locales), it somehow makes its moral and metaphysical points. These are: to pay more attention to "the wretched of the earth" and to realize, as hero Jean Valjean says, that "to love another person is to see the face of God." Randal Keith plays Jean Valjean and provides a stalwart emotional core, but no star turn. As Javert, the police inspector who dogs Valjean's tracks for decades after the former prisoner breaks parole and becomes a bourgeois success, Stephen Tewksbury is a fine singer, but a bit of a stick. Jayne Paterson is affecting as the poor single mother, Fantine. The ensemble players, playing prisoners, students and street folk, are universally convincing and in sync. One only wishes the whole cast would throw caution to the winds and wear hearts on ragged sleeves just a bit more.

-- Jane Horwitz

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Sunday)

August Wilson's scorching portrait of black musicians in the 1920s and the barriers to self-expression imposed on them by the white establishment, laced with the smoky songs of the period as well as an assortment of roles that equitably apportion the bravura moments, is a heart-rending assault on the senses. "Ma Rainey" is a fictionalized account of a day in a recording studio in 1927 with the famous blues singer of that name, here embodied by Tina Fabrique as a paranoid, pinched-face malcontent who sees conspiracies to undermine her everywhere. A megastar with black audiences, she has been coaxed to Chicago by her manager, Irvin (Hugh Nees), to cut a record with a white executive, Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James), who looks at her with cold eyes: She's a meal ticket and nothing more. If their tug of war gives the play its narrative drive, it is the interplay among the four members of her band that provides the texture. Holed up in a rehearsal room, waiting for Ma to show up for the session, Cutler (Hugh Staples), Toledo (Frederick Strother), Levee (Gavin Lawrence) and Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) tune up and lay out the evening's themes. The distinct experiences and view points they represent can at times give the play an overly schematic feel, but the characters are full-blooded creations nonetheless. By the time of the explosive conclusion, you're fully apprised of the myriad ways that the profound disappointment of the oppressed can be channeled, whether it's in music, or poetry, or blood.

-- P.M. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse through Jan. 4)

Director Lee Mikeska Gardner's rowdy and unconventional production isn't really about "Midsummer" at all: It's about a small theater company sort of haplessly staging the Shakespearean comedy for the Christmas holiday season. Yes, "Midsummer" is performed more or less in its entirety, but the focus of the evening is less on the play itself than on how the company is performing it. And therein lie both the charm and the problem of the production. In this "Midsummer," all the stage is a stage: no masking, no curtains, nothing to hide anything. The actors' preparing to perform becomes a performance in itself -- a nice touch, given the play's often playful turns on illusion and reality. The problem is that Gardner hasn't really forged an overall connection between her conceit and the play. Only on a big stretch can "Midsummer" be considered a Christmas work at all. More to the point, though, the laughs come less from the text and more from the way a ragtag troupe is struggling to present it. Funny? Most definitely at times, but theater people will probably be far more amused than theatergoers.

-- William Triplett

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 5)

This breezy "Much Ado" plays out very much like the placid drawing-room comedies of the period in which director Mark Lamos has set his production: 1920s England. The play's darker elements are obscured. The plot, too, to discredit a noble family and ruin the reputation of Beatrice's cousin, a blameless young bride-to-be, is treated here more as mischief than machinations with potentially lethal consequences. Perhaps this is a way to go with "Much Ado." Aside from the story's central romantic clash of wills between Beatrice (Karen Ziemba) and Benedick (Dan Snook), the confirmed bachelor with whom she wages her war of words, the play is not particularly compelling. The heavy burden on the two leads is to advance the cause of love with each "skirmish of wit," and that requires the audience to believe fully that these larger-than-life combatants are quite simply made for each other. The illusion is not sustained all that vibrantly in this "Much Ado." The gentrified setting, a world where manners and appearances count, also works well for "Much Ado"; this is after all a play about deception, and more to the point, self-deception, about the folly of putting more faith in the lies one is apt to be told than in following the unvarnished truth of the heart. "Much Ado" is an urgent piece of theater only if Shakespeare's brainy, sharp-elbowed lovers reign supreme, like a pair of nonpareil headliners. The less towering Beatrice and Benedick conjured here may make a good pair, but not the kind that sends you out of the theater laughing into the night.

-- P.M.

NAKED BOYS SINGING -- (By Actors' Theatre of Washington at Source Theatre through Jan. 26)

All right! Let's just be upfront here -- if you'll pardon the expression. Yes, "Naked Boys Singing!" is a bunch of naked guys, singing. Nine naked guys, to be exact. All singing. They sound pretty good, too. But let's not pretend this droll little confection of a musical revue is much more than an excuse for nine muscle-bound men to take off their clothes and prance around for 90 minutes. Conceived by Robert Schrock, "Naked Boys Singing!" is a collection of songs and musical sketches by a dozen different writers that pokes gentle fun at gay culture and, occasionally, the wider world. It is, in effect, a gay burlesque, with no higher aim than to entertain and titillate. As directed by Jeff Keenan, the numbers range from the satiric to the bawdy, and some actually do involve clothing. "All strong vocalists and able dancers, they put the show across like the inside joke that it is.

-- D.W.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS -- (At Studio Theatre through Jan. 5

Young love is expressed in all sorts of eccentric forms in fiction, but rarely has it been manipulated as bizarrely as in this provocative updating of Shaw's "Pygmalion" by the hot film director and playwright Neil LaBute. It would be unfair to reveal exactly what transpires, especially since the play receives such stylish, astute handling by director Will Pomerantz and his sparkling cast. As its title hints, "The Shape of Things" is about the idealization of appearance, about our obsession with physical perfection. A young man and woman named Adam and Evelyn meet in an art gallery, where he is a part-time guard. She, a hipper-than-thou art student, is about to deface the sculpture of a naked man. Some puritanical curators, it seems, have draped a leaf over its genitals, and absolutist that she is, Evelyn wants to draw in the private parts over the coverlet, "because I don't like art that isn't true." The statue is not the only male figure she wants to remake. Adam is a geeky, greasy-haired marshmallow, played to outstanding effect by Scott Barrow, who easily falls under the spell of the assertive Evelyn. Over a period of weeks, Adam, enthralled by Evelyn, sheds his nerdy shell, slowly metamorphosing into a campus Adonis. The life of the play is the cycle of Adam's emotional rise and fall, the story of a soft and malleable young man in search of a tougher constitution to match his new, firmer physique.

-- P.M.

THE SECRET GARDEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)

Yes, indeed, "The Secret Garden" is a musical, and one with a fairly impressive pedigree: The story, first staged on Broadway a decade ago, is based on a 1911 novel worshiped by 12-year-olds; the book and lyrics are by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, and the music was composed by Lucy Simon, sister of Carly. But this production, directed by John Going, is grim and plodding. It seems clear that Norman and Simon were trying, in adapting a children's story about death, to find a musical language for grief, and to identify the enchantment that summons the grieving back to life. And though "The Secret Garden" is blessed with several lush ballads, many suggesting traditional English folk songs, the musical never casts off its heavy emotional baggage; it never quite rises to the level of bewitching spectacle. It's difficult to single out any performance in a musical in which the characters are little more than mannequins with proper accents. The truth is, unfortunately, no one in "The Secret Garden" emerges smelling like a rose.

-- 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. SOUTH PACIFIC -- (At Arena Stage through Feb. 2)

Not every actress can get away with the line "I'm as corny as Kansas in August," but in Molly Smith's robustly entertaining new production of "South Pacific," a young performer by the name of Kate Baldwin sings it with so much conviction that you're apt to believe afresh in cockeyed American optimism. Baldwin's formidable challenge is the role of Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse who falls hard for the French heartthrob Emile de Becque, he with the thing for enchanted evenings, on an island out of the imagination of Rodgers and Hammerstein. What she and her director have done astonishingly well is to find the balance between Nellie's sunny nature and her unsettling prejudices, a feat that lends a plausibility to the tale that it can often lack. With Baldwin's endearing portrayal as the bedrock, Arena Stage's revival of the 1949 classic unfolds on solid ground. The eternal score, with all those gorgeous standards to woo by, sounds lovely in the Fichandler Theater, thanks to some top-drawer voices and a 13-member orchestra conducted by George Fulginiti-Shakar. The work in other pivotal roles -- particularly that of Lori Tan Chinn as the pliable Polynesian trinket peddler Bloody Mary -- meets the material with a dead-on ferocity. And set designer Kate Edmunds opts for an elegant floral whisper of the South Seas, adorning the theater-in-the-round with an evocative border of tropical plants and coconut palms.

-- P.M.