Mini Reviews Openings THE PAVILION -- (At Round House Theatre through March 2)
The Class of '82 has gathered for its 20-year high school reunion in Pine City, Minn., and along with booze and canapes, they're serving up heaping helpings of regret. One of the celebrants, a Twin Cities psychologist named Peter, comes to the party bearing a bouquet of flowers for the lost love of his life, a woman he had cruelly abandoned long ago. The former girlfriend, Kari, is now middle-aged and living in a cage of self-denial. In her eyes, it's all because of the behavior of this man who suddenly wants her back. The fallout from a single act of cowardice, the ways in which a ripple from the past can wash like a powerful wave over everything else in a life, is the provocative essence of Craig Wright's seriocomic drama. Repeatedly we're given unnecessary cues that the problems of Peter (Aaron Shields) and Kari (Jane Beard) do indeed amount to more than a hill of beans. And Peter's youthful actions were so damaging, so devastating to Kari's chances for happiness, that the placidity of their conversations is improbable. Round House's production, directed by Jerry Whiddon, is merely serviceable. There's a chilliness to this production, a homily where its heart should be. The truth is, though, no matter what the temperature, it's pretty easy to resist a play that is so adamant about telling you what's on its mind.
-- Peter Marks
STONES IN HIS POCKETS -- (At Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through March 2)
Like mismatched roommates, charm and mawkishness are forced into uncomfortable proximity in Marie Jones's comic celebration of that essential character out of Irish fact and fiction, the underdog. Onto the agreeably satirical tale of a film crew descending upon a village in the Irish countryside, Jones has grafted the doleful story of a young man who drowns by weighting himself down with rocks. And while the actors animating the two-man piece, Bronson Pinchot and Tim Ruddy, are witty and inspired chameleons, their effervescent theatricality is not sufficient ballast for some of the sodden, message-laden sequences with which Jones pads her play. What's most appealing about "Stones" is the stunt the actors are asked to pull off. In quick-change fashion, they play 15 characters, from stuck-up directors to libidinous starlets. Still, the show takes a lot of comic capital amassed in Act 1 and squanders it in an increasingly preachy and leaden Act 2, when the story of Sean, a troubled young man from the village where the film is being made, takes hold.
A WALK ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS -- (At the Washington Shakespeare Company through Feb. 26)
Cigar and cigarette smoke. Booze. A gangster and a predatory femme fatale. In Chris Stezin's intriguing new play those images affectionately refer to film noir, the sub-genre of dark, brooding American movies of the 1940s and early 1950s. Fortunately, it is more than an homage. It is a contemporary play about 11 individuals, all of whom are trying to understand their lives. Although its themes are ancient -- brutality, justice, betrayal, revenge -- this is a play written for today, for a society acquainted with greed, murder and disillusionment in a modern idiom. Stezin introduces his characters as unrelated people, then lets strands of their histories unfold and intertwine. Unfortunately, director LB Hamilton doesn't maximize the best qualities of Stezin's unconventional script. Too often Hamilton's production slips into an easy naturalism, which undercuts the text. Although the themes of the play are massive, there are few moments when the emotional energy onstage is intense enough to do them justice.
-- Barbara Mackay
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. Based on Felder's charming one-man show, "George Gershwin Alone," 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.
-- William Triplett
THE ITALIAN LESSON -- (At Rep Stage through Sunday)
Before Lily Tomlin, before Anna Deavere Smith, before Eve Ensler and a host of other performance artists, there was Ruth Draper, monologuist. 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 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 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. 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 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," the 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.
RUNAWAY HOME -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)
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. "I've been settled down my whole life," the woman, BettyAnn (Rosalyn Coleman), protests to her brother 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? 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, it is at this stage overlong and rather unconvincing.
THE SEAGULL -- (At Stanislavsky Theater Studio through Feb. 23)
This staging of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" appears to be right in tune with his 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 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 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 mother 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.
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? I was stunned, not by the sheer badness of it, but by the blandness. 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?
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 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.
THEOPHILUS NORTH -- (At Arena Stage 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 show is difficult to warm up to. Theophilus, played with boyish elan by Matthew Floyd Miller, is the quintessence of nice. 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. You'd like to care a lot more about this promising young man than this treatment allows.
THE UNEXPECTED MAN -- (By the Washington Stage Guild through Sunday)
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 this intriguing comedy by French playwright Yasmina Reza. This production features veteran actors Bill Largess and Laura Giannarelli as the self-absorbed novelist and his fan. It's a smartly written play. Director Steven Carpenter provides exactly the treatment it 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.
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 theater 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. It's a complex play -- no place, as they say, for amateurs. Unfortunately, that is what Tariloff has cast.