Mini Reviews

Opening

CYRANO -- (At Shakespeare Theatre through Aug. 1)

You can, it seems, teach an old warhorse new quips. A frothy "Cyrano" has taken up residence at Shakespeare Theatre, invigorated by a crafty star performance by Geraint Wyn Davies and the irreverence of a zinger-packed adaptation that displays as much affinity for the wit and wisdom of Milton Berle as for that of Edmond Rostand. The jokes in Barry Kornhauser's wiseacre script are often cheap. But let's face it, so is the sentiment in Rostand's eternally mushy play about a swashbuckling soldier-poet who had the misfortune to be born before rhinoplasty. Something needs to be done to offset the story's shopworn contrivances, and Kornhauser comes up with a nifty solution: a new pun-filled rhyming version that performs a kind of teasing gavotte on the ears. Director Michael Kahn recognizes the need to play down the melodrama and aim for the funny bone, too. The initial moments with major characters like Gregory Wooddell's Christian, Claire Lautier's Roxane and David Sabin's Ragueneau serve to put the production on a solid footing, but the vital entrance, of course, belongs to Wyn Davies, and he does not disappoint. Even the swordplay is sure-handed and witty.

-- Peter Marks

AN ISLAND OF NO LAND AT ALL -- (By Keegan Theatre at Clark Street Playhouse through July 10)

Torrents of lyricism and floods of Gaelic quaintness swamp Peter Coy's ambitious, atmospheric but unfocused new play being premiered here. Based on the work of Irish American author Donn Byrne, "Island" relates a heart-wrenching love story -- the star-crossed relationship between a sailor and a mysterious, neurotic nun in Ireland and other parts of Europe in the late 19th century. When Joan Bruce-Bennett (played by Ghillian Porter), falls for deBourke O'Malley (Eric Lucas), the lovers flee Ireland and roam uneasily around Europe. But since "Island's" infatuation with the Emerald Isle rivals O'Malley's love for Joan, the script keeps doubling back to Ireland and the Irish. Director Mark A. Rhea does a valiant job of keeping the work's sprawling tendencies in check. Porter exudes a brittle blitheness that makes the tale's denouement all the more poignant, and Lucas cultivates a laid-back, matinee-idol panache. But it's Brian Hemmingsen, as the brooding Mr. Moore, who has the most stage presence. Ultimately, these performers are overwhelmed by the play's scope and messiness. Still, Coy and the Keegan deserve credit for adventurousness.

-- Celia Wren

SHOW TRASH -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)

The eerie parallels between Superman and Lypsinka can no longer be ignored. Each is an exaggerated version of a manly or feminine ideal. And now, thanks to "Show Trash," the final, vital piece of evidence slips into place: Both have mild-mannered alter-egos. Clark Kent, we knew. But what of slender, unassuming John Epperson, who gazes at us tentatively from a baby grand onstage? Epperson is the man behind Lypsinka, a creature in heels and plunging necklines who forever lip-synchs. Epperson, not surprisingly, has none of her presence -- he is, in fact, humility incarnate. "Show Trash" rummages through the attic of Epperson's life: He plays songs he loves from musicals, sometimes singing the original lyrics, sometimes words he's made up. The story he tells will be familiar to high school drama-club habitues everywhere: the odd, lonely kid who was picked on for being sensitive and different. Director Barry Kleinbort's effectively uses photographs and home movies to embroider the autobiography. In discovering Epperson's roots, you more fully grasp Lypsinka's. Lypsinka may have the looks and Epperson the soul, but they've both got each other. Epsinka.

-- P.M.

THE WORLD GOES ROUND -- (At Round House Theatre through July 3)

At the close of the first half of this tribute to musical theater stalwarts John Kander and Fred Ebb, the ensemble merrily rolls along to one of the evening's many highlights. Sporting roller skates, four of the five performers circle the stage while singing the title song from Kander and Ebb's 1984 concoction "The Rink." The fifth is on a scooter. The quintet seems to be, more than anything else, having fun. Pure, infectious fun, and lots of it. Combined with the hugely enjoyable rendition of the tune, the atmosphere of genuine delight proves that the tough business of musical revue, done right, has a theatrical charge and pleasure all its own. Not every number in the evening is performed so charmingly well, and a few moments feel thinly staged and executed. But we're talking a relatively few flat notes in an otherwise pitch-perfect visit to the sly, wry world of two of American musical theater's most astute and melodic craftsmen.

-- William Triplett

Continuing

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

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.

-- W.T.

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.

-- P.M.

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

LYPSiNKA -- (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 Lypsinka, John Epperson lip-synchs for 80 nonstop minutes to songs patched together in a way that gives the production an almost orchestral cohesion.

-- P.M.

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.

-- N.P.

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

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.

-- P.M.

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. 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

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.

-- 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. 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.

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.

-- T.O.