Mini Reviews

Opening

THE ALTRUISTS -- (By Catalyst Theater Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 19)

Nicky Silver satire can be a lot like a supercharged pinball machine in desperate need of a therapist. You can often end up with your sides hurting from laughter. Odds are you won't experience such a welcome ache upon seeing Silver's polemical 2000 farce that, unfortunately, has one little glib thing to say and says it over and over. It seems Sydney (Allyson Currin) has shot what she thinks is her dead-beat, philandering boyfriend Ethan (Jason Lott) while he was sleeping. She races for help to her brother Ronald (Jesse Terrill), who's trying to reform a hustler he's fallen in love with. Also in the mix is their self-absorbed lesbian friend, Cybil (Eva Salvetti). If you're thinking a perfectly healthy Ethan shows up about now, you'd be right. So whom did Sydney shoot? And what to do about it? Not a bad dramatic hook, except that Silver uses it as an excuse to slash cartoon targets rather than satirize human foibles. Still, Silver can be savagely funny, and director Christopher Janson concentrates on the script's strengths; he also handily orchestrates scores of little gestures and movements from his cast that mirror every schizoid turn in the dialogue. This astutely clever production is proof that Catalyst is a company to watch.

-- William Triplett

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA -- (By Synetic Theater at the Rosslyn Spectrum through June 20)

Don't kick yourself if you have a devil of a time trying to ascertain what's going on in this balletic adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's dense novel about the excesses and absurdities of life under Stalin. Put your concerns about the script to the side and simply yield to the imaginative power of the artists who compose the vibrant pictures on the black-draped stage. What the production lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up in ferocious theatricality. The novel, adapted by Roland Reed, bounces from Moscow in the 1930s to the court of Pontius Pilate to the lair of Woland (Armand Sindoni), the satanic figure who controls the events of this dance-play like an avaricious dictator. The story revolves mostly around the love of a writer called the Master (Paata Tsikurishvili) for Margarita (Irina Tsikurishvili), a woman of ethereal beauty who falls under the spell of a creature of the Underworld. At the hub of the production, Paata and Irina are a couple you don't willingly take your eyes off. When at last they meet at center stage for a powerful pas de deux, you may find yourself wishing that they could dance all night.

-- Peter Marks

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE -- (By the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House through June 2)

As part of the "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, you can see this classic drama with or without music at the Kennedy Center. In Andre Previn's lushly ambitious operatic setting, Philip Littell's libretto is both succinct and relatively true to Williams; it is Previn's too-sophisticated score, for all of its occasional radiance, that seems fatally out of place. The result is an elegant, opulent, European modernist opera with an urgent, primitive and unmistakably American setting -- quite a cognitive dissonance. Still, as both composer and conductor, Previn elicited marvelously rich and multilayered textures from the house orchestra, and the cast is a winning one. This "Streetcar" has been given an earnest, consummately professional production, but there are better works out there.

-- Tim Page

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE -- (At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through May 30)

He's only a boy, the newspaper-debt collector who shows up at the Kowalskis' door, but the longing he triggers in Patricia Clarkson's Blanche DuBois is anything but innocent. Clarkson pulls off some sort of trick of sensual electricity as she sizes up a prize catch. Her Blanche is the decorous, fascinating and, yes, funny centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's vivid if uneven mounting of "Streetcar." The admirable qualities director Garry Hynes builds into her production -- and there are more than enough to make this an evening worth your investment -- include some very fine work by Amy Ryan as Blanche's sister, the spellbound Stella, and Noah Emmerich's portrayal of Blanche's hulking suitor Mitch. Though Adam Rothenberg is physically right as Stanley, with tense alertness and sense of territoriality, he's nothing close to bestial. If the fireworks of this "Streetcar" do not ignite with all the spark and dazzle one comes to expect from this iconic play, there are virtues in this production, most especially in the person of Clarkson, that offer more than a little consolation. When desire is in short supply, intelligence and taste will certainly do.

-- P.M.

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 Sunday)

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 Sunday)

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 Sunday)

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.

-- Tricia Olzewski

FAR AWAY -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)

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.

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 Michael Anthony 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 TRAVIATTA -- (At the Kennedy Center Opera House through June 1)

The Washington National Opera's current 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 I is unchanged, but Acts II and III 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.

-- T.P.

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

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.

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.

-- W.T.

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

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 Sunday)

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 Saturday)

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.