THE BLUE ROOM -- (At Signature Theatre through July 11)
Sex sells, they say, but in David Hare's tedious play, it qualifies as something less than a bargain. The show takes an audience through 10 vignettes of seduction and lovemaking, each one suggesting, surprise, surprise, that we are all capable of caddish behavior. This idea is driven home 10 mechanical times. The gimmick of the play is the linking of the 10 scenes: One of the partners from each tryst goes on to a second dalliance in the next sequence. Rick Holmes and Deborah Hazlett, who play all of the lovers, try to give some bite to Hare's antiseptic creatures, but they're required all evening to embody toothless stereotypes. Plus, for all the bed-hopping, the play radiates little eroticism. The Signature management notes that "The Blue Room" may not be suitable for younger audiences. The warning could use some broadening: It's no picnic for adults, either.
-- Peter Marks
LYPSYNKA -- (At Studio Theatre through July 3)
To those apoplectic over the shortage these days of great ladies of the theater, I give you that one-dame cavalcade of hyperdramatic femininity, Lypsinka. She is both trailblazer and throwback, a merciless parodist who nonetheless manages to pay affectionate tribute to bygone images of womanhood on stage and screen. For anyone familiar with her dizzy oeuvre, this production is a reaffirmation of Lypsinka's uproarious brand of performance art, a style that mixes hilarious insight with meticulous showmanship. Newcomers get the added thrill of first exposure to a peculiar kind of genius, a talent for impersonation that goes beyond mimicry. As Lypsynka, John Epperson lip-synchs for 80 nonstop minutes to songs patched together in a way that gives the production an almost orchestral cohesion. The stars Lypsinka conjures up -- coiffed, dressed and made up with neurotic refinement -- almost always manifest a tension between outward perfection and inner turmoil. This is much more than the novelty act it might have been.
NECESSARY TARGETS -- (At Olney Theatre Center through June 27)
Before Eve Ensler turned interviews with Bosnian rape victims into one of her now-famous "Vagina Monologues," she used them as the basis for this play about how women are affected by war. Prim Manhattan psychiatrist, J.S. (Julie-Ann Elliott), and young trauma counselor Melissa (Jen Plants), travel to a Bosnian refugee camp, where they spend time with five women who have little in common but their sex and their current predicament. Though each of the women is given time to tell her dramatic story, Ensler keeps the focus on the counselors. In trying to demonstrate how war affects everyone, Ensler reduces the refugees to one-dimensional characters who do little but wear their personal tragedies like placards. Ensler, in fact, is guilty of exactly what she has her characters accuse each other of doing: The Bosnian women believe foreign volunteers are interested in the refugees' stories only to further their own causes. Indeed, the plight of the play's women seems secondary to the psychological changes the counselors undergo, shifting the focus from sympathetic Bosnians to ugly Americans.
-- Tricia Olsewski
THE UNDERPANTS -- (By Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage from Thursday through July 11)
Steve Martin saw something timeless in German satirist Carl Sternheim's 1910 comedy "Die Hose." Polite society's standards of decency may have mellowed, and our tolerance of exposed skin has unquestionably increased. But nearly a century after Sternheim's work was first staged, a particular line is still drawn: It's just bad taste to let one's knickers fall down in public. This scandal lies at the heart of this delightful production of Martin's adaptation of the Sternheim play, re-staged by WSG after last winter's run. It's 1913 in a bright apartment in Duesseldorf, Germany, and young housewife Louise (Anne Bowles) had been innocently waving to the king during a parade when she became the victim of a wayward undergarment. The story may not be a Martin original, but his comedic presence is conjured onstage with high-low salaciousness and witty dialogue.
THE ALTRUISTS -- (By Catalyst Theater Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through June 19)
Nicky Silver's polemical 2000 farce , 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.
-- William Triplett
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. But 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. 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. 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. 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 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 not an easy play, but Smith's production takes a full accounting of the drama's pitfalls, unplayable moments and all.
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. 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 Saturday)
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.