Mini Reviews Openings

DAMES AT SEA -- (At Olney Theatre Center through March 30)

Only the most jaded theater-goers will fail to tap their toes and grin at the bouncy rhythms and tuneful silliness of "Dames at Sea." Under Dallett Norris's direction, the production is energetic, good-humored, amusingly acted and terrifically sung but wanting in visual glitz and dance pizazz. George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, co-writers of the book and lyrics, and composer Jim Wise created a deftly uncynical spoof-in-miniature of those mindless musicals of the '30s in which innocents from the heartland become Broadway stars just hours off the bus. The young heroine is Ruby, a wide-eyed tap-dancer from Utah with dreams of stardom. Meghan Touey, who has a pleasing bell-like soprano, plays her with an amusing blend of wide-eyed naivete and spunk. Ruby wanders into a Broadway theater where seasoned veteran (read aging diva, threatened by the ingenue) Mona Kent (Deborah Tranelli) is rehearsing "Dames at Sea," a new show by Mr. Hennesey (Jack Kyrieleison), the frazzled producer-director. As soon as Ruby walks into the theater to audition she meets Dick (Sol Baird), a sailor on leave from his ship who follows her with the suitcase he saw her forget at the bus stop. He turns out to be -- naturally -- a brilliant songwriter, terrific singer, splendid dancer and the love of her life.

-- Jane Horwitz

JUMP/CUT -- (By Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Theater J through March 30 at Theater J)

Portly, wearing a rumpled T-shirt and looking for the moment as if showering were an unfamiliar concept, Michael Chernus might not strike you as the most debonair of stage actors. But in "Jump/Cut," Neena Beber's scintillating new play about close friends and mixed signals, he's the Noel Coward of schleps: cutting, icily articulate, irresistible. The portrayal elevates slovenliness to performance art. Chernus plays Dave Hummer, a brilliant layabout with bipolar disorder who hangs around an apartment, devouring bags of potato chips, lapsing with heartbreaking self-awareness into paranoia. Amazingly, it's not a downer. On the contrary, his Dave is as charming as they come, and the effect of watching him is to be reminded that of all aphrodisiacs, wit is the most intoxicating. The latter sentiment could also be expressed about Beber, who with "Jump/Cut" not only delivers a sophisticated theater piece but also propels herself onto the list of the nation's most intriguing young dramatists. The tale ostensibly tracks the romantic and emotional ups and downs in the lives of Paul, a budding filmmaker, and the two people who come to live in his apartment: Dave and Karen, a graduate student who's fallen in love with Paul. It takes some time for the elements to coalesce, and when they do, the play builds in astonishing ways.

-- Peter Marks

THE PHILANDERER -- (By Washington Stage Guild through April 6)

Here's a lesson for any playwright: George Bernard Shaw tossed the third act of an early play, "The Philanderer," on the advice of a leading actress. She told him it was "too radical" to be produced in the commercial theater of 1893. So Shaw wrote a more palatable ending to his comedy of sexual mores, and for his trouble waited another 12 years before any producer would touch it. Did the new final act succeed where the first one failed? You can judge for yourself: The Washington Stage Guild's production uses both versions. Following the model of the Hampstead Theatre in London, which produced a four-act "Philanderer" in 1991, director John MacDonald presents Shaw's original third act as the finale. Under his staging, the play emerges as a deliciously witty satire with a darkly ironic ending. And despite its years -- and Shaw's propensity for wordiness -- "The Philanderer" resonates in this age of marital uncertainty. The first three acts concern the efforts of one Leonard Charteris (Jason Stiles), philosopher and cad, to discard one woman in favor of another. Charteris wishes to marry the widow Grace Tranfield (Kathleen Coons), but to do so he must first find a husband for Julia Craven (Tricia McCauley). In contrast to Julia, Grace is a woman of "advanced views," meaning she engages in none of the histrionics that her rival employs in a frantic effort to retain Charteris's interest. The chief delight of the play, however, is the presence of two old pros, Conrad Feininger as the mercurial Colonel Craven and Bill Hamlin as Grace's father, Jo Cuthbertson, a theater critic whose vast knowledge of just about everything -- including the divorce laws in South Dakota -- make him the answer man for the morally compromised Charteris.

-- Dolores Gregory

THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE -- (At National Theatre through March 23)

Is there a television camera planted behind the orchestra seats at the National Theatre? The question is relevant because some of the actors in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," the touring Broadway comedy, adopt the habit of looking out over the audience in expectation of a big yuk to come. Tacky, tacky. It leaves you with the impression that you've mistakenly stumbled onto the taping of a new sitcom, "My Big Fat Jewish Life." In Charles Busch's comedy, the competitive urge to win the crowd's undying affection overcomes most of the cast. The tendency to push too hard is encouraged by a surfeit of gags. But well before the tale's final gasps, it's lost all its locomotion. The tale is that of Marjorie Taub, played by a lovable pioneer of intelligent sitcom acting, Valerie Harper. Marjorie and Mike Burstyn's Ira are of comfortable means, living in one of those spacious prewar apartments on the Upper West Side that give everyone else in Manhattan bathroom envy. Contending with an empty nest, a useless husband and a bowels-crazed mother (Sondra James) who would make Joan Crawford seem cuddly, Marjorie is in existential agony. Until, that is, the arrival of the mysterious Lee (Jana Robbins), a childhood friend and absurdly well-traveled woman who helps recharge Marjorie's batteries, in more ways than one.

-- P.M.

Continuing

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 tight-knit 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?

-- P.M.

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

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. 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 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.

-- D.G.

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

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! 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 22)

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.

-- 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. 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.

SLAUGHTER CITY -- (At Theater Alliance through Saturday)

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. "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 meat packing house, where, with the help of scabs, management has just broken the underpaid workers' strike and spirit. In comes Cod (Aubrey Deeker), a mysterious figure appearing as a scab, but who may 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. The two constitute an allegory of an struggle between corrupt big business and victimized labor. That's about as complex as the thinking gets here.

-- William Triplett