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
CHILDREN OF EDEN -- (At Ford's Theatre through Saturday)
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.
-- Peter Marks
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN -- (At Studio Theatre through June 27)
Martin McDonagh's cruel and sporadically funny play is set in Ireland, or in the playwright's cracked view of the sentimental view of Ireland. In 1934, film director Robert Flaherty makes his documentary of fishing life, "Man of Aran," near the island of Inishmaan. Helen McCormack, pretty and rough, wants to be in the picture, so she drags her brother Bartley along and bullies Babbybobby Bennett into rowing them toward the action. Billy (Aubrey Deeker) finagles his way onto the boat by feigning tuberculosis, and his dowdy aunts, Kate and Eileen, cry over their departed Billy. And then on second thought, they hope he drowns. This is grotesque, absurd and potentially funny as hell. But along with the cool sheen of professionalism that is Studio's hallmark, Serge Seiden's production has a peculiar earnestness. It's as if the jury were still out on how twisted "Cripple" really is.
-- Nelson Pressley
MAHALIA -- (At MetroStage through July 11)
It's no surprise to see Bernardine Mitchell giving an infectious, powerhouse performance in this musical about gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. What's unexpected is the strength of Mitchell's sidekicks, S. Renee Clark and William Hubbard, a pair of double-threat talents who sing beautifully and coax glory from their keyboards. As actors they aren't in Mitchell's class, but then the story Tom Stolz has written about Mahalia Jackson's life is embarrassingly slight. The overly cute, platitude-laden book shuns drama and attempts no insights into one of the larger figures of 20th-century culture. The underdeveloped show is redeemed by the vibrance and integrity of its musical performance, for which music director Clark gets credit. Everything from soft a cappella spirituals to foot-stomping, organ-driven anthems is handled expertly under Clark's guidance. It seems reasonable to wonder when the popular formula of poorly written, robustly sung blues and gospel musicals will wear thin in Washington, but this show proves a core truth: When you render the music this well, much can be forgiven.
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.
ORPHEUS DESCENDING -- (At Arena Stage through June 27)
Arena Stage goes where the Kennedy Center feared to tread. Center officials decided on a greatest-hits approach to their "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival, ceding to others the riskier task of broadening an audience's perspective on Williams. For this daring curatorial coup alone, Arena deserves Washington's applause. Arena provides a respectable treatment of a difficult play, offering some strong performances and some problematic ones. If, in the end, Molly Smith's production isn't the scorcher you might have hoped for, it's a valiant try. Smith's revival has a satin-smooth surface that shows off to advantage Williams's lush language. Yet for a story set in what amounts to a truck stop on a back road to Hell, the production has a reined-in quality. The tale's unlikely lovers, dry and discarded Lady Torrance (Chandler Vinton) and bad-boy loner Val Xavier (Matt Bogart) seem to keep the burner on "simmer." The low-boil theatrics muffle the play's explosive finish, when the people of this dreary southern backwater take their violent urges out on the stranger in their midst. This is by no means an easy play, but Smith's production takes a full accounting of the drama's pitfalls, unplayable moments and all.
PASSING THE LOVE OF WOMEN -- (At Theater J through Sunday)
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.
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?
VENECIA -- (By Teatro de la Luna at Gunston Arts Center through June 12)
Before the show, Teatro's Artistic Director Mario Marcel says that this production is an example of "sainete," a theatrical style characterized by a simple script and farcical elements. Marcel isn't kidding: In keeping with the sitcom plot, this staging of Jorge Accame's 1998 play is broad enough to make "Married . . . With Children" seem refined by comparison. At a brothel in San Salvador, three young prostitutes loll about and giggle as their blind, elderly madam, Gringa (Nucky Walder), wanders around, talking about a lost love and her desire to reunite with him in Venice before she dies. The girls decide to take her there, but when they discover how much plane tickets cost, they agree that, since she's blind, they can just fake it. Oddly, despite irritatingly one-dimensional characters and an eye-rolling story, "Venecia" ends on a touching note that nearly makes up for all the buffoonery that came before it. Turns out that there's a rather heartfelt message in Accame's madness; it's just too bad he took such a low road to deliver it.
-- Tricia Olsewski