THE BEST MAN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 8)
The image of two men squaring off, grinning foxy grins, armed with political mud, may be a little grating at this stage of our national campaign marathon, but you have to admire how sharply it's drawn in Potomac Theatre Project's production of Gore Vidal's 1960 play. It's a high-minded melodrama pitting William Russell (Paul Morella), a noble but flawed intellectual against Joseph Cantwell (Nigel Reed), a hypocritical moralist. The best thing about director Richard Romagnoli's sometimes eccentric but largely penetrating production is the depiction of these two archetypal figures. Romagnoli gets you to think about something that at first blush seems absurd by casting a woman as the outgoing president. But the notion of a female president suggests a progressiveness that is at odds with a subplot about who will win the women's vote, a presumably domesticated bloc. Yet after a while, that inconsistency -- are women empowered or aren't they? -- begins to seem like the point.
-- Nelson Pressley
MEASURE FOR MEASURE -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 8)
Purity is the subject of Shakespeare's play, in which a lax government gets back to the business of enforcing morality. The plot concerns a duke who turns over the reins to the dour and rigid Angelo; Angelo rules with an iron fist but finds himself going corrupt in the presence of a beautiful woman who begs for mercy for her convicted brother. The duke arranges his return in time to set things right. Chris Hayes's adaptation for the Potomac Theatre Project is too hysterically conspiracy-minded to win hearts and minds. Hayes cuts the play nearly in half and condenses it for six actors, but his efforts to convert the story into something wholly sinister don't quite work -- though if you want to see how much "Measure for Measure" can be made to resemble "The Manchurian Candidate," this may be the show for you.
PARALLEL LIVES: THE KATHY & MO SHOW -- (By Phoenix Theatre DC at Playbill Cafe through Aug. 7)
Versions of "The Kathy & Mo Show" have been kicking around since the early '80s, when co-creators Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney brought their brand of gently feminist sketch comedy to stages from San Diego to off-Broadway. Throughout the years, Najimy and Gaffney have tinkered with the content, with two of these incarnations becoming award-winning HBO specials in the '90s. This production is taken from the earlier special, which first aired in 1991. It doesn't seem all that long ago, but the material is unfortunately pretty stale. Misty Demory and Kimberley Cooper Kissoyan play Kathy, Mo and a few dozen other characters during 14 mostly unrelated skits. The gist of these short skits is that birth is painful, men have big egos and white people are bland. Despite the highly likable actresses' nearly flawless performances, "Parallel Lives" is bogged down by such unoriginality.
-- Tricia Olszewski
PERFECT PIE -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 8)
The best overall production of the Potomac Theatre Project, this lovely and affecting play is a class-conscious but generally apolitical work by Judith Thompson. It is provocative despite a plot that requires withholding the details of a terrible long-ago accident until the very end. Thirty years later, Patsy and Francesca (Mary Beth Wise and Helen Hedman) -- the two women involved in the disaster -- revive their complicated childhood friendship. And Thompson's beautiful, uncommonly vivid writing keeps you hanging on every word. The story is set in a small Canadian town. Francesca is the girl who left, becoming a successful actress. Patsy stayed behind to live the farm life. What's absorbing about the play is the depth and nuance of the relationship and how effortlessly it makes use of flashbacks and multiple casting, having three actors play each character. There's no intellectual agitprop here: "Perfect Pie" is one for the heart.
THE WHO'S TOMMY -- (At Studio Theatre's Secondstage through Aug. 8)
The classic rock opera is 35 years old, and from the look of things, it's ready for early retirement. The atmosphere of Keith Alan Baker's constipated production is so stately you get the feeling the cast has come to lay Pete Townshend's music to rest, not to celebrate it. Thinly plotted and humorless, the play moves episodically through the kind of story that seems trite on a stage: After seeing his war hero-father kill his mother's lover in front of him, Tommy (Yuval Samburski) is struck deaf, mute and blind. The rock-musical requirement of a messianic element is fulfilled when Tommy becomes a pinball champ and attracts an adoring following. The familiar words and melodies waft through the theater pleasantly, care of the cast of engaging young vocalists Baker has assembled, especially Jeffrey L. Peterson. Still, they have a devil of a time trying to shake "Tommy" awake.
-- Peter Marks
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.
COPENHAGEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 8)
Good writing has a way of relaxing the spirit, and Michael Frayn, author of this elegantly accessible, Tony-winning play, is in this regard a stress-relief wizard. The play revolves around a 1941 reunion at the Copenhagen home of the revered Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Alan Wade) and his wife, Margrethe (Valerie Leonard), with Bohr's old student, Werner Heisenberg (Chris Lane), who earned renown as the author of the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. The meeting is reconstructed from the memories of the three participants, now speaking to each other from beyond the grave. Jim Petosa has staged the play with a keen understanding of both its humanity and its moral force, and the trio of actors lean on each other as securely as if they were sides of an equilateral triangle. Frayn's discussions of physics and classical mechanics are beautiful and utterly convincing; part of the delight of the play is in that Stoppardesque sensation of delving into realms that seem patently untheatrical, and discovering that they belong on the stage after all.
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.
DNA: DRAMA, NUANCE, ATTITUDE -- (By the Black Women Playwrights' Group at the Mead Theater Lab through Aug. 8)
How many riffs and variations can be conjured from the letters DNA? This play has plenty, ranging from sober meditations on deoxyribonucleic acid -- the genetic blueprint that defines and binds -- to the surly declaration "Don't need his [Behind]." This refreshing omnibus show is a collection of 14 monologues by a dozen writers, presented in collaboration with the Young Playwrights' Theater and directed with an attentive ear by Lisa Rose Middleton. The performance is an unembellished affair: two actors and a largely bare stage is all it takes. "Drama" is the subject in the first act, and it's saturated with family agonies; the second act is lighter. The monologues all benefit from a light, straightforward touch; it's a nice night for the writers.
FLAG DAY -- (At Shepherd University through Aug. 4)
In easily the most disturbing image of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, an actor is suspended in midair, his head covered in blood, his torso impaled on a windshield. Sitting before him in a lawn chair, beer in hand, is Dot (Roslyn Wintner), glaring at him irritably. "Why you ain't dead yet?" she demands to know. Until playwright Lee Blessing deadens the drama with an intrusively preachy character, he has an audience transfixed. Dot's behavior is so revoltingly inhuman that we want all the more desperately to understand her motives. The rather doctrinaire explanation: The working-class Dot is black and the homeless Rex (Lee Sellars) is white. What the play suggests is that had the roles been reversed, the level of cruelty might have been exactly the same.
HOMELAND SECURITY -- (At Shepherd University through Aug. 4)
While its concerns are as fresh as today's news, Stuart Flack's melodrama, part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is predictable in all its particulars. A naive Indian-American doctor (Amol Shah) and his girlfriend (Christianne Tisdale) are stopped and questioned by the FBI at the airport after an overseas trip. Is it racial profiling, or is the G-man (Scott Whitehurst) onto something? Loads and loads of arguments ensue. Shah exhibits charm, but Tisdale's Susan is unpleasant to the point of shrillness. Though Flack shows us in great detail what drives the couple apart, he never lets us see why they were together in the first place.
MACHINAL -- (At Gunston Arts Center through Saturday)
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."
OH, THE INNOCENTS -- (By Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater through Aug. 1)
The story of original sin has been updated and uprooted to that hotbed of temptation, the D.C. metro area. Paradise is now, it seems, a one-bedroom flat in a funky part of the city, and the Tree of Knowledge has been transplanted to leafy, iniquitous Potomac. All those serpentine suburbanites, itching to corrupt the young bohemians of the city! Ari Roth's play is a modern morality tale with music that traces the parallel falls from grace of Jeremy (Peter Wylie) and Betsy (Liz Mamana), a songwriter and a singer whose marriage is tested by the manipulations a sex-starved Potomac matron and a predatory record producer. Roth has previously demonstrated in previous pieces a fine ear for urbane chatter, but in this overwritten work the characters are deadeningly page-bound. The feeling of overindulgence extends to the original music, which is used in confusing ways. The play could perhaps have benefited from a director with more distance from the material.
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.
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW -- (At Nation through Sunday)
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.
THE ROSE OF CORAZON -- (At Shepherd University through Aug. 4)
This musical, written and directed by Keith Glover, is set in post-World War II Texas, but it expresses an up-to-the-minute unease, a sense of a society convulsed by its own diversity. (The play is featured in the Contemporary American Theater Festival.) Arielle Jacobs plays the lovely, guileless Rosa, a war bride who journeys from Spain to Corazon, Texas, where she must fend off the obstacles to happiness, not the least of them the disability of her flyboy-husband, Champ (Michael Flanigan). The material is promising but clumsy, the story bloated with exposition and hampered by lumpy plot devices. Thank goodness for some sweet songs and the presence of Jacobs, who holds the proceedings together to an astonishing degree.
ROUNDING THIRD -- (At Shepherd University through Aug. 4)
Richard Dresser's polished, snappy and formulaic "Rounding Third" is the clear audience favorite at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, with a dazzling performance by Lee Sellars as Don, a wiseacre, blue-collar Little League coach. The two-person work revolves around the conflicts between Don and his new assistant coach, prissy, white-collar Michael (Andy Prosky). The similarities to "The Odd Couple" are unmistakable, and though Sellars and Prosky make enjoyable sparring partners, you can't escape the feeling of having seen a lot of this before. It's likely, however, that most spectators will be made happy by its slick, quick-witted bonhomie.
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?