MACHINAL -- (At Gunston Arts Center through July 24)
In American Century Theater's "Machinal," mother's little helper is a bottle of pebbles that she uses to kill her husband. Based on the story of Ruth Snyder, whose execution was in 1928, "Machinal" is playwright Sophie Treadwell's tense, fascinating portrait of a woman come undone. Snyder's crime has also been fictionalized in films such as "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," both of which portrayed the wife as a cold-blooded femme fatale. Treadwell takes a more sympathetic approach, focusing on the unhappiness of her antiheroine, Helen, and glossing over the violence entirely, instead recounting the incident in a trial at play's end. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner amps up "Machinal's" tension nicely, frequently having supporting cast members circle the action that takes place in the center of the Gunston Arts Center performance space, an embellishment that sometimes has a practical reason but more often simply mirrors the chaos occurring in Helen's mind. A more unsettling aspect of the production, however, is its generous use of sound, such as the deafening jackhammers that simulate the construction outside Helen's hospital room. "Machinal" may not convince you that Helen's desperate act of violence was justified, but at the end of its tightly wound 21/2 hours, you'll certainly sympathize with her earlier plea: "Let me rest."
-- Tricia Olszewski
THE PRODUCERS -- (At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Aug. 22)
"The Producers," billed as "the new Mel Brooks musical," isn't so new anymore; it opened on Broadway to an explosion of huzzahs in the spring of 2001. Yet even if you're forced to wait around for the life of the party, isn't everything forgiven the minute he floats through the door? What, after all, is a year or three? "The Producers" is here at last in Washington, with its brass, cheek and boobs-in-brownshirts jokes riotously intact. Brooks's achievement -- and let's be real, though the credits list writers and directors and stuff, this musical screams "Brooks!" the way that ketchup bottle shouts "Heinz!" -- shows little of the corrosive wear and tear of life on the road. If you caught Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in their celebrated run in New York, more power to you. But if your introduction to this sublime act of insanity is Lewis J. Stadlen and Alan Ruck as, respectively, libidinous Max Bialystock and dysfunctional Leo Bloom, know that you've been delivered into capable hands. "The Producers" satisfies in gratifying waves a craving for meaninglessness. And it's as close to a Broadway experience as you're likely to encounter this far south of Times Square. This is not a show you'd call subtle. The unexpurgated feel of "The Producers" is such a tonic for a society in which taking offense has become a national pastime. Brooks goosesteps where others fear to tiptoe. The show is based on his subversive 1968 movie of the same title about, well, you know, a leering, larcenous Broadway producer who dreams up a scheme to defraud investors and cash in by mounting the most tasteless musical of all time, "Springtime for Hitler." I guess it must be pointed out that Brooks and the libretto's co-author, Thomas Meehan, scandalously stereotype and/or ridicule every category on the census form, and then some: gay men, Irish cops, Jews, lesbians, Scandinavians, accountants, Russian dictators, Nazi sympathizers, lonely old ladies, prison inmates and FDR. If your sensibilities are bruised by intimations of octogenarian sex, or outrageous punning, or the Village People, your time might be better spent tatting a new doily for the harmonium. For everyone of lighter heart and brighter countenance, though, being subjected to Brooks's irrepressible essence is as close as musical comedy gets to spiritual fulfillment.
-- Peter Marks
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW -- (At Nation through July 25)
It takes some doing to suck the fun out of "The Rocky Horror Show," but the Actors' Theatre of Washington has managed the trick. The 1970s cult film favorite has gone a little punk (not that it hasn't been there before -- heck, the Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams once did a stint in the show) and is being performed as a noisy blur in Nation, the cavernous Southeast nightclub. Director Jeffrey Johnson's stripped-down rock show staging actually starts out with promise as the big-voiced Rachel Anne Warren, heavily made up and smiling blissfully, descends from the balcony over the bar and croons the opener, "Science Fiction/Double Feature." Aided by a half-dozen or so leering, tarted-up, pansexual Transylvanians who aren't shy about giving the clientele a friendly pinch, Warren guides the audience out of the bar and toward Nation's wide stage, where designer Kevin Clark keeps the lights spinning and Mark Wujcik's lean set is not much more than a ramp at the front and projections in back. In the middle, a rock band churns out writer-composer Richard O'Brien's infectious, cheeky tunes ("Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite"). But Johnson quickly gets gummed up trying to accelerate the show's rock-and-roll energy at the expense of all else. "Rocky Horror," a long-playing staple as a midnight movie and (originally) as a deranged stage musical, is a smorgasbord of camp. What else would you call it when two squeaky-clean young lovers, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, suffer an auto breakdown on a dark and stormy night, then stumble into a Gothic castle full of sexually adventurous aliens from outer space? This is typically a comic feast for the cast, but the Actors' Theatre has pretty much abandoned acting this time out. Instead, costume designer Michele Reisch and hair/makeup designer Christie Kelley see to it that everyone is given a distinctive look, and since the singing is largely undistinguished and the acting is fast and shrill, the performances don't get much beyond that.
-- Nelson Pressley
BEEHIVE -- (At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Aug. 8)
"Beehive" presents a few dozen songs from the '60s -- and a couple that didn't chart until the early '70s -- in a revue that pays homage to the decade's favorite songbirds. Donning sky-high wigs and costumes that include skirts from poodle to mini, six women imitate performers such as Brenda Lee, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. Except the cast members don't look a whole lot like the stars they're aping, and despite strong voices, they don't much sound like them, either. There's little here, in fact, to distinguish the show as anything more than high-priced karaoke; the show doesn't even string together its hit list with a story. The well-intentioned "Beehive" may be an innocuous way to spend two hours, but it will likely leave true music lovers wishing they had just stuck to their record collections.
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.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF -- (At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through Sunday)
This is Big Daddy's play. For confirmation, look no further than George Grizzard's snarling performance as the profane patriarch of a rancid Delta household. With Grizzard as his standard-bearer, director Mark Lamos allows the drama's insidious plume of malice to ooze out all over. Dana Ivey plays the foolish, self-deceiving Big Mama, her defenselessness against Grizzard's attacks so pathetic it's comic. As Brick -- the former football star drowning his homoerotic guilt in liquor -- Jeremy Davidson conjures a world of hurt in a balance of petulance and stoicism. T. Scott Cunningham and Emily Skinner, playing Gooper and Mae, are a beautifully realized pair of bloodless vultures, circling the dying Big Daddy. Their children, the "no-neck monsters," are the drama's boldest indication of Williams's contempt for domestic tranquility. Sadly, Mary Stuart Masterson is less than a sublime fit as Brick's wife, Maggie, the sensuous conniver fixated on Big Daddy's fortune. But, overall, the very savory thing about this production is the very bad taste it leaves in your mouth.
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.
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
LYPSINKA -- (At Studio Theatre through Saturday)
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.
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.
THE RADIANT ABYSS -- (Woolly Mammoth at the Kennedy Center Film Theater through July 18)
We should all know better than to fall for a lost soul like Ina, the dizzy hourly employee of Angus MacLachlan's new comedy. As played by Dana Acheson, Ina is an offspring of the America epitomized by greasy fries and half-baked formulations of right and wrong. Though Ina is the most seductive, all three characters in the piece are memorable losers, and director Lou Jacob ensures that the farcically indecent acts committed in and around the cinder-block office in which the play takes place retain a ripe sense of lunacy. Erin Skidmore (Janis Dardaris), a property management proprietor, enlists her lover, Steve Enloe (Jeremy Beazlie), in a scheme to sabotage the services at the fundamentalist church next door. Ina, who is also on conjugal terms with Steve, is recruited as the third leg of this mischievous triangle. Still, despite all the fine character detail, there is a disconnect among the plot elements. The play's offbeat charm notwithstanding, MacLachlan has yet to iron out some kinks in his tale.
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?
TATTOO SKY -- (By Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse through Thursday)
In this brash, poetic but ultimately unsatisfying drama written and directed by Eric Lucas, two people tear each other apart as they wait to swindle a third character. Camped out in an isolated house in the desert, trashy but romantically yearning Ray (Mark Rhea) and Meg (Susan Marie Rhea) engage in fierce, desperate conversations, taunting and tormenting each other as they wait for the mysterious stranger they are conspiring against. Though spirited and sometimes comic, the couple's slangy skirmishes don't lead anywhere emotionally, thematically or plot-wise. But Lucas has a flair for language, particularly monologues, and the play ignites when it reaches one of the vivid speeches in which characters recall moments from their pasts. It is through them that one glimpses the imaginative world he's trying -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to reveal.
THE UNDERPANTS -- (By Washington Stage Guild at Arena Stage 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 .
THE WORLD GOES ROUND -- (At Round House Theatre through Saturday)
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