Mini Reviews Openings

INTIMATE APPAREL -- (At Center Stage Baltimore through March 30)

Some facts of social life never change. A hundred years before Carrie Bradshaw and her all-girl posse were bemoaning the state of Manhattan dating on "Sex and the City," Esther Mills was having her own uncomfortable brushes in New York with the opposite sex, men who were forbidden to her because of race or religion, or who wanted her for the worst possible reasons. Esther is the seamstress heroine of Lynn Nottage's new play, "Intimate Apparel," and what animates the age-old travails recounted here is Nottage's obvious affection for Esther, a plain but plucky African American woman who falls prey to loneliness and a rough character on whom she has never laid eyes. The play is given handsome treatment by director Kate Whoriskey and the virtuoso costume designer Catherine Zuber, who persuasively drapes the actors in turn-of-the-century finery. And though Nottage offers a slice of old-time New York life rarely portrayed onstage -- particularly as it pertains to black New Yorkers of the period -- "Intimate Apparel" is a rather sluggish piece of theater. It attains a satisfying urgency only in one of the more exotic of its many threads. That subplot concerns the unspoken attraction between Esther (Shane Williams) and an immigrant Jewish fabric salesman (Steven Goldstein) who sells her the bolts of cloth that furnish her with a livelihood. The scenes between Williams and Goldstein are the loveliest in the production. The playwright, however, has less success with subtleties of plotting. The thrust stage on which "Intimate Apparel" is performed isn't ideal, either. It's narrow and very long, rolling out into the audience like an endless tongue. In the scenes that are played upstage, watching is like eavesdropping on conversations all the way across the street. Still, for consolation, there are those beautifully rendered exchanges between Esther and the fabric salesman, tender moments we look forward to almost as much as they seem to.

-- Peter Marks

THE PHILANDERER -- (By the 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

1776 -- (At Ford's Theatre through June 1)

On the eve of war, the American general is anxiety-ridden. Facing an enemy army commanded by a pitiless tyrant, he is not at all sure what awaits his troops. Support at home is iffy; his countrymen are divided over whether this military campaign, a whole new kind of war, is warranted. And though his soldiers, bivouacked on harsh terrain, are spoiling for a fight, they are also young and uneasy about the deprivation, the lengthy separation from loved ones. Who knew a schmaltzy Broadway musical could so spookily home in on the zeitgeist of these tense times? The general is George Washington, the musical is "1776" and, with bull's-eye acumen, Ford's Theatre has revived the 1969 Tony winner in a pleasing production directed by David H. Bell. With the show's highly skilled and ably drilled cast of 25, Ford's is administering a dose of history-by-show-tune that goes down very easily. To see "1776" at Ford's is to realize afresh how far from a museum piece its creators, the composer Sherman Edwards and the book writer Peter Stone, sought to make it. It's chockablock with goofy numbers and winking references to matters of the flesh. The lyrics are pure, eye-rolling Broadway corn, but what Edwards and Stone were about was the business of demystifying history, years before it became the vogue among popular biographers. Director Bell and company are worthy enlistees in their cause. Ford's production, though, is not without its demerits: It's a shame, for instance, that the theater's abominable sound system is such an obstacle to audibility. Yet "1776" has just enough zest, just enough melody, just enough historical detail, to satisfy all the likely constituencies, from tourists to war buffs. Stone and Edwards managed to mine the story's emotional undercurrents and in the process allow us to see how the efforts of a disparate group of men could be harmonized, for the greater good of all. What is ultimately most stirring is not the individual voices but the chorus.

-- P.M.SIDNEY BECHET KILLED A MAN -- (At MetroStage through April 6)

By any measure, Philip Litwin is a brilliant man. A world-famous heart surgeon, he's saved 20,000 lives over his long career. He sleeps but three hours a night, plays a virtuoso jazz clarinet, is known to take off, unannounced, for Paris or Martha's Vineyard and, when bored at 3 a.m., he reads the same novel over and over again -- "Moby-Dick." Why not? Like his favorite work of fiction and his musical hero, the late jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, Philip's life is characterized by "obsession and adventure." And Philip's friends are along for the ride. There's Marcel, his loyal attorney and financial adviser. And Emily, his wife, who was charmed by Philip's impulsive and romantic nature. Both are mesmerized by him. Neither can say enough good about him. And both have reason to hate him. Given that setup to Stuart Flack's "Sidney Bechet Killed a Man" we can only expect to witness the fall of Philip Litwin -- and we do. Fall he does. But that's about the only predictable element in an ambitious play that wrestles with an old question: What is genius in the absence of conscience or humility? Director Nancy Robillard takes a stripped-down approach to Flack's fast-moving text, relying on the sparest of props and Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.'s black-and-white set pieces to shift the action from place to place. Robillard's casting, however, is a curiosity. For despite a fine performance and the requisite gray coloring in his dark hair, Morella is easily 20 years too young for the part. The text clearly depicts Litwin as a man 40 years out of medical school. Why Robillard chose to use an actor in his forties to play a character in his sixties is a question I cannot figure out. (Schraf, too, is miscast. While an appropriate choice to play opposite Morella, she is also too young for her part.) It's to the credit of the actors that this question arises as an afterthought, just one of several nagging questions that stay with you at the play's end. "Sidney Bechet" is a genuinely adventurous work, breaking with linear storytelling structure and at times mimicking the jazz musician's penchant to riff on a theme. Such risk-taking is exciting to see, but occasionally maddening.

-- D.G.

THAT TAKES OVARIES! -- (By Horizons Theatre at the Hand Chapel on the Mount Vernon campus of George Washington University through March 30)

This is one of those projects that sound better on paper than they work in practice. The play, which uses material from a collection of anecdotes edited by Rivka Solomon, is meant to celebrate the power of women to stand up for themselves. As a book, a collection of stories about women telling abusive men to get lost may be inspirational. As theater, it's earnest, uninspired and oddly lacking in dramatic tension. Not that the stories are inherently undramatic -- there's plenty of material to mine if the adapters had bothered to do it. There's the girl who saves her battered mother from committing suicide, the young Salvadoran who risks rape and abuse to sneak across the Texas border to economic freedom, the elderly San Franciscan who opens a sex-toy store for women and a host of gutsy junior high school students who stand up against obnoxious boys and their oppressive expectations of female behavior and appearance. The problem is that Solomon seemed to think the anecdotes in the book could leap straight from the page. According to co-adapter and co-director Leslie Jacobson, it was at Solomon's insistence that the authors did not change the original wording of the anecdotes. So instead of drama; it's narration. That, combined with overly broad direction and a costume design that gives us seven barefoot actors in flowing multicolored robes -- performing in, of all places, a college chapel -- only adds to the sanctimony. "That Takes Ovaries!" is the kind of feminist theater that gives feminist theater a bad rap. You are tempted to dismiss it out of hand not because of the plot or the message or the politics but because the damn thing is such an insufferable, condescending bore. Thirteen-year-olds who face these kinds of situations daily will find a lot of encouragement in the stories told here. Adults, however, go to the theater for other reasons, and it's not to hear a sermon.

-- D.G.

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.

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

Only the most jaded theatergoers 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. Known principally as the hit that introduced a young Bernadette Peters to American musical theater audiences, "Dames" opened in late 1968 and ran until 1970. 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 (the role Peters originated) 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 HorwitzENDGAME -- (By Catalyst Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through Saturday)

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.

-- P.M.

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 of "Jump/Cut" to coalesce, and when they do, the play builds in astonishing ways.

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

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.