Mini Reviews

Opening

BELGRADE TRILOGY -- (By Scena Theatre at Warehouse Theater through Saturday)

The characters in Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic's three pieces contemplate the past and look toward the future, so it's only appropriate that they do so on New Year's Eve. The play, written in 1996, is haunted by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the exile of its citizens, with each act introducing young Serbians who are trying to reestablish a life outside their native land. Though politics may have shaped these characters' circumstances, Srbljanovic layers their lives with enough slice-of-life drama to make "Belgrade Trilogy" compelling even without its historical context. In the production's most satisfying offering, new parents Sanja (Adrienne Nelson) and Milos (John Slone) have recently moved from Belgrade to Sydney and have invited another Serbian couple, played by Ellie Nicoll and Chris Davenport, to their apartment for New Year's Eve dinner, which is rife with stress and ends with the revelation of a divisive secret. Less successful -- through no fault of the actors -- are the pieces that bookend the production: In the opening play, two brothers, Kica (Slone) and Mica (Davenport), are singing and dancing in a bar in Prague, where Kica is trying to protect his brother from both the army he deserted and the truth about Mica's first love. In the last piece, two Belgrade transplants (Linda Murray and Dan Brick) meet at a party in Los Angeles, where they spend the whole time drunk and high. A sudden, violent turn that reflects nationalist anger feels a bit forced, though its unsettling resolution nicely sets up a quietly gut-wrenching coda that's more elegant.

-- Tricia Olzewski

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR -- (At Warner Theatre through Sunday)

So many words are unintelligible in the new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic rock opera that it might as well be performed in Aramaic. The wonders of modern overamplication ensure that the witty contributions of lyricist Tim Rice play a mangled second fiddle in this overproduced muddle at the Warner Theatre. The production, staged by Kevin Moriarty, is further evidence of an exasperating trend in musical theater performance, one that suggests that when it comes to vocal delivery, it's all over but the shouting. The dispiriting effect of Peter J. Davison's ominous, graffiti-smeared scenery is only deepened by the mishandled talent, including Lawrence Clayton (Judas), Natalie Toro (Mary Magdalene), Lawson Skala (a spooky Caiaphas) and Eric Kunze (Jesus). Jesus's torment is capably conjured; the choreography of the lashings by Pilate offers the show's most compelling moment. Still, no actor should be forced to endure the production's other punishments, the grueling vocal Olympics. Is this what audiences want? If they submit willingly to an inarticulate "Superstar," who knows? We may soon be lining up for an all-whispered version of "The Music Man."

-- Peter Marks

JESUS HOPPED THE "A" TRAIN -- (At Round House Theatre Silver Spring through May 30)

This jailhouse play by Stephen Adly Guirgis is brought to life with eloquent clarity by director Jose Carrasquillo and a cast headed by the excellently matched Michael Ray Escamilla and Michael Anthony Williams. The rendering of the prisoners, Escamilla's comically misguided Angel and Williams's pathological Lucius, reveals them as real men, not mere cellblock archetypes. In a protective custody unit on Rikers Island, serial murderer Lucius, awaits extradition to Florida, while Angel is awaiting trial on charges of shooting a preacher in the backside, a wound that may or may not have caused his eventual death. The conversations between Lucius, who professes to have found God, and Angel, a nonbeliever, form the crux of the play. Wavering faith in the legal system is the preoccupation of another character, Angel's Legal Aid lawyer, Jane Beard's Mary Jane Hanrahan, who provides the bulk of the narration. While passages unfold with a poetic power, Guirgis's storytelling skills are not quite on the same scale. The play nonetheless receives handsome treatment by Round House, which regularly offers some of the most striking stagecraft in the area.

-- P.M.

LA TRAVIATA -- (At the Kennedy Center Opera House through June 1)

The Washington National Opera's production of Verdi's "La Traviata" is a solid one, cast from strength, conducted with assurance and sensitivity, and attractive to the eye. It is also something of a novelty: A decision was made to present the composer's original version, from the disastrous world premiere in 1853, rather than his 1854 revision. Act 1 is unchanged, but Acts 2 and 3 underwent some substantial rewrites. The original "Traviata" gives the soprano who sings Violetta more strenuous and stratospheric challenges than the ones we are used to today, and the roles of Alfredo and Germont are similarly enhanced. Violetta is, in effect, three roles in one, and Hei-Kyung Hong gives a strong performance. John Matz, in his Washington National Opera debut, brings a virile, lustrous lyric tenor voice to the role of Alfredo and acted well, too. Still, despite the richness of some of the soon-to-be-excluded music, the principal fascination to be found in any version-to-version comparison is the sure dramatic genius that told Verdi just what to cut and where, thus turning a beautiful but somewhat baggy opera into a lean, lithe masterpiece of music drama.

-- Tim Page

PASSING THE LOVE OF WOMEN -- (At Theater J through June 6)

Can two men deeply devoted to God profane biblical law and still be worthy of love and respect? That's the question running like a fault line beneath this evocatively designed and directed new play now receiving its English-language premiere. You have very likely seen this kind of play about doomed, forbidden love before, but probably not played out in a 19th-century East European Jewish village. Intensely atmospheric and detailed, the production summons a world heavy with unforgiving customs and rituals. It is based on "Two," a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and adapted by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner and Singer's son, Israel Zamir. The retitled result is an uneven but intriguing amalgam. Azriel (David Covington) and Ziesl (Karl Miller) are two young Talmudic scholars in Frampol, Poland, where Singer set many of his tales. But as we -- and they -- soon discover, they share more than a love of the Torah. Once they acknowledge their love for each other, they take a room together in a boardinghouse on the far edge of town. And to avoid drawing suspicion and disgust, Ziesl dresses as a woman. The usual kind of cross-dressing antics -- spurning the advances of a randy old landlord, feeling a sudden desire to clean and sew -- ensue. But under the laughs, real conflict -- and pain -- exist. With a talented cast, director Daniel De Raey impressively balances all the performances on the terrain of a new play that isn't quite settled.

-- William Triplett

Continuing

BEYOND GLORY -- (At the theater of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial through May 31)

Hero is a designation that's bandied about way too liberally these days, but Stephen Lang embodies it in captivating fashion in this deeply stirring portrait of seven servicemen who distinguished themselves in war and emerged with extraordinary stories to tell. In a remarkable convergence of time, place and actor, Lang eases gracefully into the skins of each of these men, veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, to offer riveting accounts of valor under all manner of horrific circumstance. The piece is performed at the theater in the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery; watching a play about the scars and stripes earned during wartime, in a theater surrounded by fields of brilliant white headstones, injects an extra dose of poignant realism. In a less sophisticated adaptation, "Beyond Glory" might fall prey to jingoism, but no such recruiting-poster mentality intrudes with the charismatic Lang on duty. The piece is as starkly moving as taps at dusk.

-- P.M.

BOY GETS GIRL -- (By Theatre Alliance at H Street Playhouse through May 23)

A bouquet of flowers has a way of saying "Be mine," but after sitting through Theater Alliance's outstanding "Boy Gets Girl," you may feel as if the words sound more like the sentiment of a sadist than a romantic. If, in fact, you aren't seriously creeped out by the way desire morphs into psychosis in Rebecca Gilman's comedy-drama, your own ideas about the mating dance might be in need of a major rethink. The play is making an overdue Washington debut and, in the process, allowing an array of actors to strut their best stuff. Tara Giordano's frisky secretary, John Dow's seedy porn director, Eric Singdahlsen's sturdy writer and Jim Jorgensen's dorky editor are all smartly conceived and satisfyingly played. Lucy Newman-Williams, who portrays Theresa, the self-assured reporter blindsided by a blind date gone haywire, is even finer; a sexy aura envelops her performance, a whiff of star quality that permits events to unfold with seductive force. And as the drama's enigmatic linchpin, the well-mannered young man with the ingratiating grin who drives Theresa to terrified distraction, Carlos Bustamante offers a performance of such self-possession that even after he vanishes from the stage, the impression remains so vivid you would swear he's left footprints. The basic stalker plot, familiar in its contours from any number of TV movies of the week, is not what makes the play so compelling. The satisfaction here comes from the views offered on how men and women treat each other. Milagros Ponce de Leon contributes an attractive, utilitarian set; Kate Turner-Walker's costumes evince a realistic urbanity, and the lighting by Joel Moritz helps provide a seamless transition from scene to scene. The teamwork is in the gratifying cause of making sure you squirm, just a little, all night.

-- P.M.

CHILDREN OF EDEN -- (At Ford's Theatre through June 5)

This earnest and untaxing retelling of Genesis is set to rousing if unremarkable music and recast as a case study out of Psychology Today. The Old Testament, according to composer Stephen Schwartz and book writer John Caird, not only marks the birth of humankind but also the origin of the family feud. The reassuring message is that the Brotherhood of Man has always been a cosmically dysfunctional household. For all the artful verve, however, the play is more pumped-up pageantry than sophisticated theatricality. It's engineered to appeal to a demographic: a family audience in pursuit of wholesomeness. There is not a shred of offensiveness in it. There isn't a decent laugh, either, but its humorlessness cannot be chalked up to reverence or religious fervor. The musical takes us through the initial chapters of Genesis, concentrating on the familiar tales of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah's ark. The Old Testament God is embodied here by a figure called Father (Bradley Dean), and he's imbued with all the characteristics of a demanding dad. Brad Haak's eight-piece orchestra gives the score a full, rounded sound. Would that the musical itself reached out as successfully.

-- P.M.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS -- (At the Folger Theatre through May 23)

Whadda piece a woik is a man? Dis is da stuff dey are chewin' over at da Foljah Teatah, in dis old Shakespeah play. No, really, dey tawk like dis fa two cockamamie owahs. Getting on your nerves a little? Well, actually, some of this Jersey/Brooklyn/Lawn Guyland goodfella-speak is kind of cute, especially when it's accompanied by some sharp mob-inspired sight gag, courtesy of director Joe Banno's sharp visual wit. While it is perfectly routine, even a little old-fashioned, to transpose Shakespeare to a more "relevant" time and place, the verse has to make sense. And this is where Banno's production sinks like a corpse in cement shoes. In scene after scene, coherence is sacrificed for the sake of an easy laugh. It's very difficult to follow the mechanics of Shakespeare's plot -- about the lunacy that ensues after two pairs of long-separated identical twins converge -- when the language is forever being upstaged by props and elaborate bits of business. The production does have a jaunty playfulness, and the cast does a fine job. As for the production's handling of the text -- da rest is violence.

-- P.M.

ENIGMA VARIATIONS -- (At Washington Stage Guild through May 23)

Though it shares its title with a piece of 19th-century orchestral music, this production of the Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt play will more likely leave you humming a different bit of music. Abel Znorko, an author who lives on an island in the Norwegian Sea is the theatrical embodiment of Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am a Rock." Znorko's fortress is one day penetrated by Erik Larsen, a journalist seeking an interview with the reclusive writer after the success of his latest novel. It's no surprise when we find out that Znorko (Conrad Feininger) is less the solitary man than he paints himself to be, or that Larsen (Bill Largess) has an ulterior motive. But Schmitt's script does offer a few twists that help make the 90-minute performance a riveting ride, and Feininger and Largess bring impressive nuance to their characters. Schmitt's meditation on the convention of relationships -- and the temperaments of wordsmiths -- is often bitingly funny with the dialogue that's poetic and aching. The plot turns are a bit head-spinning toward play's end, but it's forgivable: The resulting conundrum, as the music on which "Enigma Variations" is based, satisfyingly leaves both the characters and the audience with plenty to think about.

-- T.O.

FAR AWAY -- (At Studio Theatre through May 23)

Just as the subconscious terrorizes the night, so can the sights and sounds of "Far Away" unsettle the day. In this short, dazzling play by Caryl Churchill, a vision of the world that civilized people desperately try to keep at bay is unleashed in all its quiet, insistent cruelty. Forty-five minutes is all it takes for the playwright, aided movingly by director Joy Zinoman, her design team and a superb cast headed by Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo, to engage the machinery of nightmare. In three swift vignettes, Churchill charts a movement from social order into chaos, principally through the eyes of Joan (Simone Grossman as a little girl; Twyford as a grown-up), who as a child bears witness to a disturbing, violent act by her unseen uncle. It's clear by the second vignette, set in a drab hatmaking factory, that the adult Joan has completely internalized the trauma of her childhood, for she happily pursues the work of creating architecturally splendid headgear alongside her new beau (Montelongo). The horrific use the ornately whimsical hats are put to dresses brutality in a new way. Zinoman, Studio's artistic director, draws from her four-person cast a quartet of estimable portraits. The production is further evidence that when it comes to staging classics of a young vintage, no one in town is doing it with a finer feel than Studio.

-- P.M.

HENRY IV, PART 1 -- (At Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday)

If taking in a pointillist painting requires some distance, Bill Alexander's staging of "Henry IV, Part 1" poses the opposite challenge: The farther you step back, the less coherent it seems. Some character details are finely etched, but the colors of this Shakespeare Theatre production fail to merge in a way that offers a wholly satisfying picture of the ascendancy of Prince Hal. "Henry IV, Part 1" commences Hal's march to the crown, which he'll assume at the end of Part 2, as Henry V. This play is both a coming-of-age story and a meditation on leadership, laying bare the divergent paths of two young men, Hal (Christopher Kelly) and Hotspur (Andrew Long), and the ways in which their contrasting temperaments -- adaptable Hal vs. impulsive Hotspur -- guide their differing fates. It's also about the pull of the paternal figures who not only divide Hal's loyalty, but preside over the warring sides of Hal's brain: His father, King Henry VI (Keith Baxter), pulls him toward duty, Jack Falstaff (Ted von Griethuysen) toward pleasure. The effort to provide psychological depth is at times inventive. It succeeds admirably at times: Baxter's Henry IV is a more sensitive soul than one is used to, and this Falstaff is no conventionally clownish sot but an acerbic layabout, so disengaged from the world that he seems to deliberately invite Hal's growing disaffection. But the illuminating of eccentric, naturalistic shades in Shakespeare's kings and warriors is not handled consistently: Kelly's Hal, for example, has youthful vigor, but he evinces little depth and less empathy. The production's lackluster effect is puzzling, but perhaps real inspiration will make its entrance in Part 2.

-- P.M.

HENRY IV PART 2 -- (At Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday)

It is in Jack Falstaff's precipitous fall from grace veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen finds his footing, delivering a subtle accounting of a man who cannot fathom his own pitiable obsolescence. Falstaff is the dominant presence in Shakespeare's "Part 2," giving what might have been a run-of-the-mill history pageant the stamp of tragedy. To this actor's credit, his Falstaff remains true to himself, inscrutable, aloof, an inveterate debaucher who somehow continues to sport an undercoat of pride. In short spurts, Bill Alexander's production exceeds his minor version of Part 1. In one scene, Keith Baxter's Henry IV provides a compelling payoff as the king melts in tears, first as the realization of his bloody legacy sinks in, and then in relief, as he begins to grasp that his son is indeed fit to succeed him. Young Prince Hal (Christopher Kelly) is strong in the scene, too, as a humbled monarch-in-waiting who dissolves in the older man's embrace. For the first time in their testy, arm's-length relationship, they are a real father and son. In long dry spells, however, the production evinces few such signs of life. Though their consonants are crisp, few performers exercise anything more energetically than their tongues. Comedy fares better here than pathos, and in a funny sendup of old age, Alexander offers powerful expression of the vision of Falstaff as a tragic clown, a Lear with laughs. Van Griethuysen's performance comes into its own, an actor masterfully harnessing his character's ebbing strength.

-- P.M.

LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse through May 22)

Originally conceived for Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre and reprised from last August's WSC run, John Vreeke and Mary Machala's stage adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's text is essentially literary stagecraft: Characters speak not only the novel's dialogue but also its narrative passages, often referring to themselves in the third person and telling us how they said something -- after they say it. In a sense, they're acting out the prose, addressing each other directly with dialogue, then turning away as they elaborate -- still in character -- the things they conceal from each other. The technique can be distracting to the point of preventing you from connecting with the characters. But if you can accept it, the show ultimately works its magic, somehow bringing Lawrence's ideas about class, social repression and human sexuality to pulsing life. The acting sometimes varies widely (this is no material for beginners), and with most of the six-member cast playing multiple roles, it can be hard to keep track of who's who. Michael Kachman's minimal set is haphazard, almost like an afterthought -- another distraction. And yet, whatever the flaws, something both intellectual and emotional is not just happening but coalescing before your eyes. Vreeke, who also directs, conjures an atmosphere that seems to emanate from some hidden place in the soul where love, hate and desire intersect.

-- W.T.

OH, COWARD! -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)

Grab your champagne glass and picture this: marble floors, a graceful row of frosted sconces, two grand pianos framed by a curtained helix that rises like a spiral staircase. This is the handsome art deco fantasia that greets the audience at Roderick Cook's sweeping 1972 revue of Noel Coward's urbane and puckish oeuvre. The show isn't always as sophisticated and devil-may-care as director Dallett Norris clearly wants it to be; it occasionally provokes meditations on the exact placement of the line between formal and stiff. But more often than not, the actors Valerie Leonard, Thomas Adrian Simpson and John Leslie Wolfe carry themselves with enough savoir-faire to make the evening easy. Impudent music hall tunes dominate the first act, while the sentimental numbers come off well in both acts. Christopher Youstra's musical direction is solid throughout, and the combo of two pianists and a drummer effectively serves Coward's patter songs and ballads. When Leonard arrestingly performs "Mad About the Boy" with a riveting edge, it's one of the few moments when the revue swaps its underlying urgency to persuade -- Behold the blithe genius! -- for an urgency to express.

-- Nelson Pressley

PORCELAIN -- (By Tsunami Theatre at Warehouse Theatre through Wednesday)

Beautiful moments don't often take place in public men's rooms. But in this play, a restroom known for gay sex is exactly where a bit of magic occurs for a young Chinese man named John Lee (Kasima Tharnpipitchai), whose story then turns even more desperate and tragic than the circumstances that led him to search for love among the lurid. When a man is found dead after being shot six times in a U.K. bathroom popular for anonymous encounters, John, who had been discovered cradling the man's bloodied body, was arrested for the murder. Playwright Chay Yew unfolds John's predicament with an intricacy that's deftly handled by director Mike Chamberlin and his excellent cast. Tharnpipitchai is a quiet force as John, who confesses the aching loneliness and discrimination he felt as an Asian in Britain. Despite moments of levity, a few moments of melodrama creep in, but the missteps of Tsunami's production are rare, and its delicate handling of a subject at once sensitive, explosive and tawdry is simply stunning.

-- T.O.

THE SEA GULL -- (By Quotidian Theater at the Writer's Center through May 23)

Only a twit would respond to her grown son's suicide attempt with "You won't be playing any more bang-bang while I'm away, will you?" Of course, the characters in Anton Chekhov's "The Sea Gull" all have their issues, which already brings quite a bit of unpleasantness to a work that Chekhov intended as a comedy. But in Quotidian Theatre Company's staging, these quirks are often exacerbated past the point of seeming simply human to being flat-out irksome. In this slice-of-life ensemble piece, translated and helmed by Quotidian Artistic Director Jack Sbarbori, there's no clear protagonist -- a novelty when "The Sea Gull" debuted in 1896 -- which gives the play's 10 characters equal chances to annoy, depress, befuddle and occasionally entertain. Sbarbori sets "The Sea Gull" in 1912 but keeps the action on the lakefront estate of Petr (Norman Seltzer), Irina's wheelchair-bound older brother, who laments his supposed sickliness. One night, friends and family gather at an outdoor theater on the property to see a production of Konstantin's new play, starring his love, the ingenue Nina (Colleen Delany). Despite all the passion being bandied about, this production is surprisingly lifeless. There are, happily, scenes that play just right. And throughout, the production is appropriately embellished, from the ruffles and flourishes of the characters' period formal wear to the elegant if slightly musty decor of Sbarbori's living room set. But the pretty staging doesn't make up for the play's ultimate shortcoming, which is that instead of showcasing Chekhov's humor or his characters' pain, this "Sea Gull" leaves you most often feeling nothing at all.

-- T.O.

SENOR DISCRETION HIMSELF -- (At Arena Stage through May 23)

There's a song in my heart, and it's all because of a curious old Frank Loesser musical. The song is called "I Cannot Let You Go," and when two delightful performers, Elena Shaddow and Ivan Hernandez, are let loose on it, wrapping their buttercream vocals around the plaintive, romantic melody, the effect is transcendent. Unfinished at the time of Loesser's death, this musical seems a classic example of the creative chasm between score and book. Written as a comic south-of-the-border fable, it plays like a tedious Mexican cartoon, full of bogus humor and grating satirical whimsy. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright with relentless energy and gaudy antics, the show meanders through the story of a tipsy baker named Pancito (Shawn Elliott) who's elevated from town drunk to town savior after the image of the Blessed Virgin is discovered in one of his loaves of bread. Despite the ineffectual book, the music makes the production burrow into a spectator's affections. The Shaddow and Hernandez duet, especially, is pure bliss.

-- 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 how-they-dunit. How has a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes found success here for so many years? 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 salon of Tony Whitcomb. Suddenly the lights go up, and the detectives investigating the case turn to the audience for help solving the crime. Why would one of the world's premier showcases for theater tie up one of its stages for so long with any play, let alone one so inconsequential?

-- P.M.

WAITING FOR GODOT -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse through May 22)

A play that questions the sanity of repetition may seem an odd choice for reprise, but WSC's presentation of the Samuel Beckett classic proves that sometimes it's okay to stick with what you know. This current staging brings back Dorothy Neumann, the director of its 1994 production. Neumann remains faithful to Beckett's English translation of his 1953 play about two tramps and one hell of a wait. The story is bare-bones: Two raggedly dressed men, Vladimir (Christopher Henley) and Estragon (Hemmingsen), are trying to pass the time as they await the arrival of a stranger named Godot. We never learn who Godot is or why they're waiting for him; what is clear, however, is that the two are bored as they kick around the appointed outdoor meeting place and are tortured by their inability to just leave. The highlight of their two-day wait is the appearance of the top-hat-and-tails-wearing Pozzo (Steve Wilhite) and his dopey servant, Lucky (Mancini). The quick pace and sharp characterizations of the staging ensure that the audience won't be bored with Beckett's story about boredom, which in the end celebrates the imperfection of humanity.

-- T.O.