Mini Reviews Openings AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' -- (At Arena Stage through May 25)

This serviceable revival, a co-production with Baltimore's Center Stage, comes to Arena a quarter-century after the original production made its trailblazing Broadway debut. A showcase for the silky jive of Fats Waller's syncopated songbook, the intimate revue not only popularized a new style of retrospective cabaret on Broadway but also became one of the most successful musicals of all time, winning the 1978 Tony for Best Musical. The new "Ain't Misbehavin' " does not exert anything close to the gravitational pull of its celebrated ancestor, although the show's five-piece onstage band, led by the superb William Foster McDaniel, does operate in an orbit of Jazz Age cool all its own. The five singers who take us through about 30 standards by Waller, his peers and his collaborators -- atmospheric ditties like "Honeysuckle Rose," "T'Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" and "Your Feet's Too Big" -- are eager and occasionally inspired. What you find yourself missing in the erratic evening, though, is a bit of sin. The songs are all about vice and mischief, yet there is often little sizzle in the delivery, little sense that these songs are hot off the griddle. Even in its less-than-perfect incarnation in the Kreeger, it's possible to commune with Waller and company, to smile away the world's ills. Pack up your troubles. Come on. Get happy.

-- Peter Marks

ELIZABETH THE QUEEN -- (At Folger Theatre through May 4)

Rarely is a single career woman presented with such a stark romantic dilemma: Your kingdom, madam, or your boyfriend's neck? Providentially, Michael Learned is in the house to wrestle with it. She is not only the "name," but also the centrifugal force in director Richard Clifford's savvy, quicksilver staging of Maxwell Anderson's 73-year-old play about a woman in control of everything except her own happiness. The play is Anderson's take on the relationship between Elizabeth and Essex, a nobleman whose popularity with the common people makes him a threat to her in matters beyond those of the heart. The heart, however, is precisely how Essex (Martin Kildare) gets to the queen, who's desperate to believe his protestations of love and, at the same time, ready to pounce at the slightest hint that he is less than fully attentive. Corseted, bejeweled and looking like one of the antique dolls they sell on QVC, Learned's Elizabeth presides over her court like the vain chairwoman of a board of narcissists, all skulking around the home office, seeking ways to maximize their wealth and power. The top connivers, like Sir Robert Cecil (Jeremiah Wiggins) and Sir Walter Raleigh (Gary Sloan), take their cue from their queen, brainstorming for ways to keep their rivals, especially the hotheaded Essex, at bay.

-- P.M.

42ND STREET -- (At the National Theatre through April 12)

Check your mind at the door, sit back and get ready to smile: "42nd Street," that showcase of the flash-bang talents of the late choreographer Gower Champion, has come to town. The current touring revival, directed by Mark Bramble, originated on Broadway two seasons ago. Champion's dancing is not only intact but also complemented by additional choreography from Randy Skinner, Champion's assistant for the 1980 premiere. It's hard to tell what's new and what isn't, and that's good: All the steps, turns, taps and leaps flow together. The large ensemble provides solid backup, and with those gems from the Warren-Dubin songbook that's good enough, especially when you've got first-rate dancers. The show opens with a curtain that rises only waist-high, revealing dozens of legs kicking and twirling in precision to a finger-poppin' overture. In that instant you'll likely think all you need to think: We're in the money.

-- William TriplettTHE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY -- (At Studio Theatre through May 4)

Philip Goodwin and Nancy Robinette go as naturally together as a pair of kid gloves in Edward Albee's mischievous "The Play About the Baby." The tight teamwork is a very good thing, because the characters they portray -- called simply Man and Woman -- are like a vaudeville act from the dark side. Their job is to beguile and bedazzle even as they rain a hellish kind of torment on a couple of innocents: their callow counterparts, Boy and Girl. Psychological torture, in fact, is the bulwark of their act in this comedy with fangs about the blinding illusions of youth and the bitter wisdom of age. The fight that Albee sets up here is by design not a fair one. These mysterious older people -- urbane, ingratiating -- have arrived to prey upon the self-absorbed twenty-somethings, to rob them of an untroubled sense of the world. The younger couple's belief in the future is symbolized by the baby they've just had, and it is their blissfulness that the older couple is determined to destroy through some of the most vicious means conceivable. The way to the parents' sense of security is through their child. "The Play About the Baby" is ultimately as savage as it is funny. At times it feels not about the people onstage but about the chasm that divides them, about the ravages of experience.

-- P.M.

RICHARD III -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through May 18)

Though Australian director Gale Edwards has chosen a modern setting for her production of "Richard III" -- the antiseptic lobby of a sinister hospital with, shall we say, unresolved quality-of-care issues -- the lethal goings-on remain positively medieval. Faster than you can say health maintenance organization, heads will roll. You may scratch your own head at some of Edwards's efforts to fit the square pegs of the play into the round holes of her notions, but it would be folly to try to resist her nervy showmanship. Assisted by a top-flight cast -- and, most rewardingly, by Wallace Acton's showboating sociopath of a Richard -- she treats the audience as if it had come to Shakespeare with much the same expectations as crowds in Elizabeth I's times, with the desire to be spooked, titillated, wowed. To see something they had never seen before. It's a high-concept approach. The entire corrupted kingdom is sick in the head -- and at heart. No wonder it spawns a latter-day Caligula who can arrange the murders of his brothers, wives and nephews as blithely as if he were ordering a tuna on rye to go. The caliber of acting, however, is so uniformly impressive that you could strike the set and the concept and still be left with a first-class treatment.

-- P.M.

LA VAGABONDE -- (By Le Neon Theatre through April 20)

Le Neon Theatre, Arlington's French American troupe, ends its 16-year run this month with a final production based on several works by French novelist Colette. "La Vagabonde" concerns a Parisian music hall performer torn between romance and career. It encapsulates all the delights and the attendant frustrations of the company's unique performance style. With its emphasis on image and physicality, "La Vagabonde" offers a refreshing break from psychological realism, but any theatergoer in search of a story could lose patience waiting for the thread of narrative to emerge from all the pictures. Co-adaptors Didier Rousselet, Dominique Montet and Monica Neagoy draw their dialogue directly from Colette, but they clearly have not turned to Aristotle for instructions in how to build a play. So don't look here for rising action, climax or a central character driving the story. In fact, there's not so much a story as there is a collage of scenes, characters, images, pantomimes and performance pieces, including two lovely solos by vocalist Barbara Papendorp and recreations of the sensual tableaux vivants that Colette performed to a scandalized Paris.

-- Dolores Gregory

Continuing

THE GOOD THIEF -- (By Scena Theatre through April 13 at Warehouse Theatre)

This production proves a maxim sometimes given short shrift by contemporary theaters -- nothing trumps a good story well told. And Conor McPherson's "The Good Thief" is a great story, as exciting and suspenseful as the best Hollywood thriller. But any story so told, in the monologue form that is McPherson's forte, necessarily depends on the skill of the teller. In this respect, Scena scores in casting Eric Lucas as an Irish shakedown artist reflecting on the botched assignment that transformed his life. Lucas inhabits the skin of a thoroughly unlucky Dublin thug with a truncated capacity for introspection. Alone in a London pub, he works through a bottle of whiskey and pack of cigarettes as he calmly recounts the events that awoke in him the unfamiliar stirring of a conscience. His story is that he was dispatched by an underworld boss to shake protection money out of a resistant businessman, something the thief thinks is a routine assignment. But it quickly goes sour, and fearing a setup, he flees for his life, taking along the principal witnesses -- the businessman's wife and child. From there, almost nothing happens the way he -- or the audience -- expects.

-- D.G.

HENRY V -- (By the Washington Shakespeare Company through April 26 at Clark Street Playhouse)

Those pesky French, always up to something! The French royals are meant to be deeply irritating in the Washington Shakespeare Company mounting of "Henry V"; the actors put on farcical Gallic accents, as if they were extras in a remake of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." It's disconcerting to have to report, however, that they are not the only annoying aspect of director David Bryan Jackson's patience-trying production, one that gives new meaning to the term "Shakespeare marathon." Somehow this most kinetic of history plays, filled with battlefield sequences and heart-stopping soliloquies, is made to seem endlessly windy. In the hands of Jackson's inexperienced cast, the piece clocks in at a soul-crushing 3 hours 10 minutes. But any sense of what meaning derives from the events of the play -- who these characters are, what their travails signify, how war transforms the impressionable Henry -- remains unexamined. As Henry, Karl Miller gets right the portrait of kingly entitlement. But the development of Henry's more mature traits, his vision and humanity, escapes the young actor. Many of the 11 actors are called upon to play three or four characters; sometimes triple or quadruple duty leads to very questionable choices, such as having Valerie Fenton play not only a French princess but also a French prince.

-- P.M.

THE PHILANDERER -- (By the Washington Stage Guild through April 13)

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.

-- D.G.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.

-- P.M.SALOME -- (By Synetic Theater through May 25 at Church Street Theater)

An elegantly prepared mudslide into decadence and mayhem, Oscar Wilde's "Salome" just may be better suited to the page than the stage. That, at least, is a conclusion you're likely to draw after seeing Synetic Theater's beautiful but elusive production of an extremely lurid take on the biblical tale of Herod's capricious stepdaughter, her notoriously erotic dance of the seven veils and her demand for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as payment. Some of the images that director Paata Tsikurishvili conjures, along with sensually undulating choreography provided by his wife, Irina Tsikurishvili, are blissfully mesmerizing. But the expressionistic production keeps bumping into the literal text. Herod (Greg Marzullo) is a man caught between the physical, i.e. his lust for Salome, and the spiritual, his fear of the holy prophet Jokanaan (Jonathan Leveck). Jokanaan has been heralding the coming of a savior, and has loudly denounced Herod's marriage to Salome's mother as incestuous. The king has thrown him in prison but is afraid of executing him. Salome's sexual passion drives almost all the action. When Jokanaan spurns her attempts to kiss his lips, she preys upon Herod's lust for her to get what she wants. Director Tsikurishvili's highly stylized orchestration is often breathtaking, and had he stylized everything -- by, for example, not having made Salome's interactions with Jokanaan or his head so literal -- the evening might have achieved the cumulative, surreal power of Synetic's inaugural production of a silent "Hamlet." Still, Synetic's "Salome" is further evidence that the company is the most theatrically inventive and daring in town, and possibly the least in need of words.

-- W.T.

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.

SIDNEY BECHET KILLED A MAN -- (At MetroStage through Sunday)

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.