Mini Reviews Openings

BOOK OF DAYS -- (At Arena Stage through March 30)

Something smells funny in Dublin, Mo. (pop. 4,780), and it's not simply because the town's major export is cheese. A leading citizen has died under peculiar circumstances, and the tightknit community is unwilling to ask, or even entertain, some troubling questions about the event, questions that just might implicate another of Dublin's favorite sons in a ghastly crime. The scenario has all the earmarks of a minor murder mystery, but Lanford Wilson's play is no mere whodunit. In fact, who done it is made pretty clear almost from the get-go. What Wilson is after is something bigger and more unsettling: a portrait of society in spiritual disarray. Wilson can be a windy writer, though, and in "Book of Days" that trait trips him up; the play collapses under the weight of its own diligence. The playwright bogs us down in the sorts of details that require endless expository flourishes and device after narrative device. It's wearying, and more than Wilson's characters and framework can bear. Ruth Hoch (Jennifer Mudge) plays a bookkeeper in the local cheese factory run by Walt Bates (Jack Willis), a sturdy businessman whose preppy son James (Scott Janes) racks up better numbers on the back nine at the local country club than on his bar exam. After Walt dies of a gunshot wound in a duck blind during a tornado, Ruth is the only resident who harbors suspicions: Why doesn't Walt's rifle smell as if it's been fired? And why is everyone, including the sheriff (David Toney), so quick to dismiss evidence of foul play?

-- Peter Marks

WEDDING DANCE -- (By the African Continuum Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater through Sunday)

Dominic A. Taylor's graceful play is an imaginative tribute to love in an unlovely setting, and to the miracle of major collisions -- man and woman, mother and daughter, friend and friend -- without fatalities. "Wedding Dance," directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, takes place in Chicago's contemporary South Side, whose poverty and brutality are not a natural breeding ground for romance. Yet that is where Taylor's hero, Chuck (Kevin Jiggetts), meets the object of his desire, Bessie (Lakeisha Raquel Harrison). When Chuck and his buddy mug a woman in a wheelchair for her money, Bessie comes after them with a vengeance: The robbed woman, Gayle (Willette Thompson), just happens to be her mother. Intrigued by Bessie, Chuck begins to look for her everywhere. "Wedding Dance" is less powerful than it might be, because Bessie is almost exclusively confined to the display of two emotions: anger and skepticism. Yes, her mother was mugged, and yes, she knows the fallibility of trust, but her single-minded concentration on those concerns leaves no room for the sizzling emotional and sexual tango that should exist between her and Chuck throughout the play.

-- Barbara McKay

Continuing

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's 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.

-- Dolores Gregory

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 delivers a top-drawer performance as Nagg, a legless old man confined to a trash can and 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.

-- P. M.

110 IN THE SHADE -- (At Signature Theatre through Sunday)

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.

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 Sunday)

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; 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.

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 pounding 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

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

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. 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.