Mini Reviews Openings THE ITALIAN LESSON -- (At Rep Stage through Feb. 16)

Before Lily Tomlin, before Anna Deavere Smith, before Eve Ensler and a host of other performance artists, there was Ruth Draper, monologuist. Draper's nearly 40-year career began in the drawing rooms of the Manhattan elite in 1920 and took her around the world as she performed her original one-woman shows to kings and presidents. A groundbreaking performer in her day, Draper satirized the elite circles in which she moved. One of her most successful pieces is "The Italian Lesson," an amusing look at a pampered Park Avenue matron with too many things to do. This rarely performed monologue is receiving a respectable staging at Rep Stage on a double bill with . . . "The Italian Lesson," an opera by Lee Hoiby. It's not often that you get to see the same material reconsidered in the same evening, let alone reconsidered as a one-woman opera supported by an 11-piece orchestra. The effect is interesting, if not wholly successful in the end. In Draper's original, directed by Jackson Phippin, actress Valerie Lash (formerly Costantini) portrays the matron as the kind of aristocrat so often lampooned in Marx Brothers comedies. She trills her lines with infinite patience and cheer as she patronizes children and servants alike. Too bad Rep Stage did not pair it with other work by Draper or her contemporaries. For my money, putting it on the same bill as the opera version benefits neither piece.

-- Dolores Gregory

110 IN THE SHADE -- (At Signature Theatre through March 9)

The voices pierce director Eric Schaeffer's remarkable new "110 in the Shade" like whistling winds across the prairie. You can hear so much in these voices, so much of the raw emotion that the authors unabashedly sought to instill in this tender musical of 40 years ago. Based on N. Richard Nash's 1954 play "The Rainmaker" (Nash also wrote the book for the musical), "110 in the Shade" does have a couple of mighty hurdles in its path, having to do with plot deficiencies and a theme harking back to the days when women could be referred to as "the distaff side." The story suggests that, horror of horrors, a woman who can't rope a man is condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, aka spinsterhood. And the men in the show feel free to lecture the heroine, Lizzie (the sterling Jacquelyn Piro), about the most intimate things. "You don't even believe you're a woman," hunky mystery man Starbuck (Matt Bogart) informs her. "And if you don't, you're not." The tale takes place over a single day that marks the return of Lizzie from a visit to relatives in a nearby town, where she has maintained her perfect record for putting off men. It also happens to be the day of the arrival in town of Starbuck, the con man with the claim that he can bring the rains. But mostly, what intrigues Starbuck is the challenge of restoring Lizzie to full bloom.

-- Peter Marks

THE SEAGULL -- (At Stanislavsky Theater Studio through Feb. 23)

Stanislavsky Theater Studio's staging of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" appears to be right in tune with Chekhov's idea of comedy. Sure, there are plenty of funny, even farcical moments in the script, but Chekhov's brand of comedy is heavy on irony. Dark irony, at that. The STS production, using a lively adaptation by Roland Reed and staged by artistic director Andrei Malaev-Babel, is a somber portrait of unhappy hearts with occasional grim yuks. The not-so-good news is that while Malaev-Babel has certainly helped shape performances, he hasn't integrated them. And without clear, interconnected relationships that live and breathe, you don't really feel that poignant contrast between the characters' surface and their inner lives. The result is an evening that has a clear pulse -- some performances are strong -- but almost no blood pressure. The play is centered on a young son's desperate attempts to win the love and respect of his self-absorbed mother. He's as doomed as the seagull he ominously shoots about halfway through the show. As the son, Konstantin, Jonathan Leveck is both petulant and endearing, a true "bundle of nerves," as other characters call this young man who wants to be a writer in order to impress his mother, the great actress Irina Arkadina (Caroline McGee). McGee's Irina is a statuesque narcissist full of hauteur, a woman who can barely conceal her resentment of her son. The two performances are sharply etched. You watch these people sink deeper into loneliness and pain, but in the end you're as vaguely connected to them as they are to each other. "I am more dissatisfied than satisfied," Chekhov wrote of "The Seagull" upon finishing it. You'll likely feel the same about this production.

-- William Triplett

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF -- (At Classika Theatre through March 9)

Classika Theatre has nicely padded chairs with satin covers and, if one must sit for two and a half interminable hours to watch a theatre company make hash of a classic play, I can't think of a better place to do it. The only thing that would enhance the experience further would be to swill as much gin as the characters on stage. Then perhaps, director Constantine Tariloff's bizarre deconstruction of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" might begin to make some sense. The story of two academic couples engaged in a booze-fueled night of recrimination and seduction established Edward Albee as a leading American dramatist. The embittered middle-aged couple, George and Martha, play host to a younger couple, Nick and Honey, who think they've been invited for a nightcap after a faculty party, but instead find themselves sucked into George and Martha's brutal head games.It's a complex play -- -no place, as they say, for amateurs. Unfortunately, that is what Tariloff has cast. Out of pity, I will not name names.

-- Dolores Gregory

Continuing

GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE -- (At Ford's Theatre through Feb. 23)

To say that Hershey Felder loves George Gershwin's music might almost be a disservice. The Canadian actor-playwright and concert pianist clearly adores, admires and possibly even idolizes the work of one of America's best composers. The evening is a deeply heartfelt valentine wrapped up in songs and stories, which Felder essentially offers as a gift to his audience. There's not a sour note in this show that has already played on Broadway and in several other cities, though there are missed opportunities to explore the man and his short, enigmatic life. As a stage biography, "George Gershwin Alone" is a light confection. But as a loving tribute to Gershwin's music and genius, the show is chock-full of nuggets about both. Combined with Felder's playing -- accomplished, to say the least, and eerily evocative of Gershwin's peculiarly heavy-handed style -- and Joel Zwick's simple, elegant directing, "George Gershwin Alone" is a heartwarming reminder that American songwriting talent in the last century was unrivaled.

-- W.T.

HIGH DIVE -- (At MetroStage through Sunday)

Leslie Ayvazian, acting coach, turns away from the audience, steps onto the bare stage at MetroStage in Alexandria and becomes Leslie Ayvazian, performance artist. For 75 minutes, with the help of audience members reading out various parts from their seats, she portrays Leslie Ayvazian, mother, wife, actress, adventurer -- and magnet for disaster. This is "High Dive," a true story about things that Ayvazian might prefer had not happened. Told with wit and verve, it's a hugely entertaining ride, sure to elicit yowls of laughter and recognition from anyone who has ever been bruised by life. In a play about taking risks, inviting the participation of the audience is one of the gutsiest leaps any performer could take. Only minutes before showtime Ayvazian is in the lobby handing out scripts and cheerfully explaining the parts to her volunteers. There are more than 30 parts to read, but amazingly, no one flubs a line. Or if they do, we don't notice. Ayvazian takes whatever comes her way and runs with it.

D.G.

THE LAST SEDER -- (By Theatre J at the Jewish Community Center's Cecile Goldman Theater through Sunday)

Say, what's with Michelle? On her way to Long Island for Passover, she stops a guy, a perfect stranger, and asks him to escort her to her parents' seder. Is this going to be a kooky evening served up with matzo, or what? Leave aside the fact that nothing we ever learn about Michelle provides a satisfactory explanation for the impulsive act dramatized in the opening minutes of "The Last Seder," Jennifer Maisel's frustratingly uneven new play produced by Theater J. Frustrating because, seemingly out of nowhere, in the final gasps of the second act, the playwright constructs a tender scene that would raise a lump in the roughest throat. The scene is one of touching magic realism, in which a patriarch ravaged by a brain-wasting disease regains his faculties, to the relief of his wife and Michelle (Carla Briscoe) and his three other daughters. It's the kind of scene anyone from a family despondent over illness or infirmity can conjure, that shining portrait of a loved one restored to full vigor. You want to believe that Maisel wrote all of "The Last Seder" around this lovingly realized scene, played with dignified dexterity by Bill Hamlin as the stricken father. What else to make of the tedious buildup to it? For much of the play, clumsily staged by Joseph Megel, we get the outlines of a generic family in crisis. The formula is so basic: take one dread malady (Alzheimer's), add some easy-to-digest characters. There's Pregnant Lesbian Daughter, Selfish Commitment-Averse Daughter, Restless Free-Spirit Daughter and Lonely Artistic Daughter. Invalid Dad is tended to by Exhausted Nursemaid Mom (Halo Wines), who finds solace in the arms of Patient Widower Neighbor.

-- P.M.

RUNAWAY HOME -- (At Studio Theatre through Feb. 16)

In "Runaway Home," Javon Johnson gives himself the unenviable task of trying to explain away the inexcusable. A single mother, struggling to raise five kids in rural South Carolina, gets a visit from a beau she hasn't heard from in 20 years, Paul (Sekou Laidlow), a devilishly reptilian R&B star who arrives with champagne, silk dresses and a proposal to rescue her from her suffocating existence. As with all Faustian bargains, however, there's a price to be paid, and this one's a doozy: She must abandon her children. Even the little ones. Take the man's arm and have her ticket to freedom punched. Leave behind a note, and all the mess to someone else. "I've been settled down my whole life," the woman, BettyAnn (Rosalyn Coleman), protests to her brother, Frank (Wayne W. Pretlow), as she wrestles at the age of 36 with an understandable urge to escape. Have all her grueling years of shouldering responsibility earned her any kind of reprieve? Does endless, stoic self-sacrifice have its own reward? Is there ethical wiggle room for a mother who has had her fill of mothering? But though the conflict between obligation and self-fulfillment is painstakingly explored in this domestic tragicomedy, the play is not as yet incisively rendered; it feels much of the time like a rough draft. Burdened by an overly convenient plot and some crucial characters in need of clearer definition -- in particular, the central figure of BettyAnn -- "Runaway Home" is at this stage overlong and rather unconvincing.

-- 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. 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.THE SILENT WOMAN -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through March 9)

Just to clarify: "Animal House, 1609" is not the title of the ribald and ripping new production at Shakespeare Theatre. The antics only seem to be patterned after a gang of frat pledges with diseased minds. The name of this lunatic farce is "The Silent Woman," by that Elizabethan bad boy Ben Jonson. Under the expert tutelage of Michael Kahn, the actors are transformed into Jonson's willing accomplices, merry pranksters all in an evening of endless gibes and smirks. "The Silent Woman," after all, makes no pretense of insight into the human condition. In its wall-to-wall zaniness, it sneers at everyone and everything. The joking explores territory you might have thought was taboo until, say, the 1970s: birth control, divorce, bisexuality. And Sally Jessy thought she was ahead of the curve. The story, such as it is, revolves around the hoodwinking of an old man, Morose (Ted van Griethuysen), whose ear for the sounds made by others is so sensitive that his chairs (and servants) have to be padded from head to foot. A potential mate is found for him in the person of Epicoene (Ricki Robichaux), renowned for the attribute Morose treasures above all others: soft-spokenness. But no matter how diligently he tries to muffle the world, Morose is set upon by all manner of annoyance and contrivance, from the dandyisms of Sir Amorous La Foole (a nifty Floyd King) to the sneaky ministrations of a trio of young plotters (Scott Ferrara, Bruce Turk and, in a smashing Shakespeare Theatre debut, Daniel Breaker). The director gleefully puts his company through its paces; as if to ensure that the proceedings never rise above the sophomoric, he concludes Act 1 with a food fight. Which feels right. You can sense the unbridled spirit of the author in every toss of the dinner rolls.

-- P.M.

THEOPHILUS NORTH -- (At Arena Stage Kreeger Theater through March 2)

This new stage adaptation of a novel by Thornton Wilder can point to some handsome assets, notably G.W. Mercier's period wardrobe and a cast that seems for the most part agreeably correct for the time and place, which happens to be hoity-toity Newport, R.I., in the footloose 1920s. On the right track, too, is playwright Matthew Burnett's channeling of Wilder's distinctive voice, that wry and humane instrument that explored the obstinacy as well as the optimism in the American character. And yet, despite the warm touches, this "Theophilus North" is difficult to warm up to. Theophilus, played with boyish elan by Matthew Floyd Miller, is the quintessence of nice. He's the personification of all that was deemed to be commendable in hearty young American manhood of the early 20th century, of a class that did not acknowledge the existence of such interlopers as Jews, Italians and blacks. In episodes that progress as parables, Theophilus is invited into troubled households on servant's errands -- to give tennis lessons to children, to read to socialites -- only to profoundly influence the lives he stumbles upon. Theophilus, though, is such a detached creation that his adventures don't register very movingly. The challenges he faces -- to find his place in the grand scheme, to reconcile the humble pursuit of decency with the Ivy League-scale dreams with which he's been indoctrinated -- must be graspable here by more than osmosis. You'd like to care a lot more about this promising young man than this treatment allows.

P.M.

TWELFTH NIGHT -- (At the Folger Theatre through Sunday)

Showering "Twelfth Night" with melodies has become something of a tradition: The musicals "Your Own Thing" and "Play On!" were both based on the play. The cue comes from the playwright Aaron Posner, who peppered "Twelfth Night" with songs for Feste, the evening's worldly clown. Portrayed here by Sarah Marshall, Feste still does the lion's share of the vocalizing, and her songs often contain echoes of Shakespeare's wry commentary. Other songs, however, are complete departures, including a number assigned to Viola, the story's heroine-in-drag, that owes less to the rigors of the lute than to the stylings of Marvin Hamlisch. The playful score is thoroughly in keeping with Posner's lighthearted approach to one of Shakespeare's most enchantingly poetic works. If some of the more sinister elements -- the fixation on death, the wanton cruelty of the revenge taken on the arrogant Malvolio -- have been brightened a bit, it's all in the spirit of making the play broadly accessible. It's a safe bet you'll leave the Folger not only with renewed faith in how unstuffy Shakespeare can be, but also with a residual giggle or two lodged in your throat.

-- P.M.

THE UNEXPECTED MAN -- (By the Washington Stage Guild through Feb. 16)

A woman boards a train en route to Frankfurt and settles into a compartment opposite a man whose face is strangely familiar. Where has she seen that face before? Oh yes, on the dust cover of the book in her handbag! Yes, it is that famous writer -- her favorite writer! What to say? What to do? Getting up the nerve to address each other is the tension that drives "The Unexpected Man," an intriguing comedy by French playwright Yasmina Reza, author of the international hit "Art." This production by the Washington Stage Guild is the play's area premiere and features veteran actors Bill Largess and Laura Giannarelli as the self-absorbed novelist and his fan. It's a smartly written play, structured largely as a series of internal monologues in which the two characters mull over recent events and speculate about each other. All the while, they find reasons not to engage in conversation. Director Steven Carpenter provides exactly the treatment that a play of this nature requires, finding the action amid the chatter and creating a physical shape for a text that does not immediately suggest one. Largess's character is a prickly fellow, yet the actor imbues him with a spirit that we find sympathetic in spite of an outsize ego. And Giannarelli is an actress of natural intelligence and an underplayed kind of sexiness, who communicates complex emotions with the simplest gestures. In larger venues these two fine character actors often are employed in supporting parts. Here, happily, they own the stage, and for 75 minutes our complete attention as well.

-- D.G.