Mini Reviews Openings

SLAUGHTER CITY -- (At Theater Alliance through March 15)

You can pretty much always tell when a tale about injustice has been written by someone who's probably never experienced it. For one thing, there's an annoying urgency in the telling that says more about the writer's privileged insularity than the subject at hand. For another, characters are typically no more than sticks or clubs the author uses to try to pound home a polemic that has all the tensile strength of a rubber nail. "Slaughter City," Naomi Wallace's 1995 play, varies only slightly on the shopworn pattern. Her characters are meat cleavers thrown at just about everything from economic exploitation to sexual politics. Wallace does have an intensely theatrical style, which director Jeremy Skidmore evokes with literally bloody atmospherics. The play is set in a Midwestern meatpacking house, where, with the help of scabs, management has just broken the underpaid workers' strike and spirit. In comes Cod (Aubrey Deeker), a mysterious, sexually ambiguous figure appearing as a scab, but who may really be from the spirit world. After all, he seems to be trailed by Sausage Man (Barry Abrams), a nattily dressed businessman wearing a meat grinder around his neck whom no one but Cod can see. Cod wants to rally the workers into a Marxist-style uprising while Sausage Man continually taunts him with his previous failures. The two constitute an allegory of an eternal struggle between corrupt big business and victimized labor. That's about as complex as the thinking gets in "Slaughter City."

-- William Triplett

Continuing BENCHLEY DESPITE HIMSELF -- (By American Century Theater at Theater on the Run through Saturday)

In a prolific and varied career as drama critic, humorist, actor and screen personality, Robert Benchley was a master wag, living literally by his wit as he made his way from the pages of the New Yorker to the back lots of Hollywood. The demons that drove him form the mystery at the core of "Benchley Despite Himself," a delightful one-man memorial written and performed by Benchley's grandson Nat. It's an engaging work that breaks with the usual conventions of one-man plays. Rather than inhabit the character of Robert Benchley the entire evening, Nat Benchley blends his own observations with re-creations of the routines and sketches that made his grandfather famous. The effect is at once seductive and distancing, perhaps a bit like Robert Benchley, whose humor often obscured his unhappiness. As directed by Nick Olcott, however, "Benchley Despite Himself" is no mere jokefest. A thread of melancholy reflection runs through the show, which celebrates not only Robert Benchley but his times.

-- Dolores Gregory

CERVANTES: MAESTRO DEL ENTREMES (THE INTERLUDES) -- (By GALA Hispanic Theatre at the Warehouse Theatre through March 16)

If theater is a form of entertainment, then director Hugo Medrano seems not to be concerned about it. His preoccupation with re-creating some imagined historical experience instead obscures the substance and wit of the text he is staging -- four short pieces by Miguel de Cervantes, all originally written as interludes to be performed between the acts of a full-length 17th-century drama. "El Rufian Viudo Llamado Trampagos" relates the tale of a gigolo whose elderly wife has just died. He uses the occasion of her funeral to pick out a more comely companion. In "El Viejo Celoso," a wealthy old man who married a 15-year-old girl finds that her appetites exceed his capacity to perform his husbandly duties. "El Juez de los Divorcios" reveals the efforts of three mismatched couples to obtain a legal divorce. "La Cueva de Salamanca" also deals with the issue of adultery, as a young wife plans a party in her husband's absence. All these works reflect the influence of the commedia dell'arte, with their emphasis on bawdy humor and their reliance on stock comic characters. The cartoonlike treatment layers so much noise over Cervantes' text that it's almost impossible to get a sense of underlying action -- particularly for the English speaker forced to listen to the piece in translation on a headset. It might have been nice to experience the inherent comedy, as well as the poetry, of the text.

-- D.G.

COYOTE WOMAN -- (By Cherry Red Productions at the Warehouse Next Door through March 15)

Meet Janet (Jacky Reres), the roommate from Hell: a whiny, sniveling deadbeat with more lip gloss than common sense. She's late with the rent; kicks her roommate, Debbie, out of the apartment so she can entertain her boyfriend, Cliff; then has the nerve to get engaged to the guy when Deb can't get a date! But then the moon comes up and something strange happens to Janet. She sprouts claws, and her voice drops an octave. She becomes . . . Coyote Woman, the title character in playwright Justin Tanner's riff on the Jekyll-and-Hyde motif. Here, though, Dr. Jekyll is a little closer to the Breck Girl, or perhaps a holdover from "The Donna Reed Show." She's so annoyingly meek and depressingly dependent that she seems to have come through a time warp. But after a transforming encounter with wildlife, she's a new woman. Suddenly, Janet is fun! She stays up all night to par-tee! She tells off her annoying boyfriend! And -- even more amazing -- she pays for the beer. That's about as far as the plot goes, but this is the latest offering from Cherry Red Productions, so who needs a plot? You can have a couple of brewskis and wait for the blood to spew! Fans of Cherry Red will find enough here to satisfy their craving for bad acting and B-movie plotting. But once you get past the initial gimmick, "Coyote Woman" doesn't offer much to chew on.

-- D.G.

ENDGAME -- (By Catalyst Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through March 15)

In the stressful current climate, Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," the last word on nihilistic despair, almost qualifies as escapism. In fact, if this admirable production is in any way remiss, it's in not taking complete advantage of the gallows humor at the dark heart of the absurdist classic. Steven Fitzgerald, who delivers a top-drawer performance as Nagg, a legless old man confined to a trash can, dependent on his blind son Hamm (Eric Singdahlsen) for his daily diet of biscuits. Peering out beseechingly over the rim of the can -- his hollow eyes and bald pate give him the look of an Edward Gorey illustration -- Fitzgerald emerges as a fascinating Beckett grotesque, feeble and infantile all at once. His trash bin, like the identical one inhabited by his wife, Nell (Wendy Wilmer), sits in a pile of rotting garbage. Decay is the prevailing condition in Hamm's house, the last stop on the road to oblivion. The sense of futility that permeates this Beckett masterwork is cleanly communicated in Christopher Janson's smooth staging. The cosmic joke of "Endgame" has not been lost here: that even with the knowledge of the annihilation to come, we go on selfishly living moment to moment, bickering and needling and fighting over every last crumb.

-- Peter Marks

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.

-- P.M.

THE PAVILION -- (At Round House Theatre through Sunday)

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 "The Pavilion," 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. This production, directed by Jerry Whiddon, is merely serviceable. There's a chilliness, 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.

-- 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. 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. 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. 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.

-- P.M.

STONES IN HIS POCKETS -- (At Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through Sunday)

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. The weaving of the two largely incompatible threads is the elaborate task that Jones created for herself in the play. 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 not only play the two extras but 13 other major characters as well, from stuck-up directors to libidinous starlets. Still, "Stones in His Pockets" 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.

-- P.M.

THEOPHILUS NORTH -- (At Arena Stage through Sunday)

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 staging 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.

-- P.M.

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.

-- D.G.