MARY'S WEDDING -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Sept. 5)
In Stephen Massicotte's play, a delicate-looking Englishwoman recounts a dream that involves a fast-moving lightning storm, a skittish horse and an equally nervous farmhand. From the beginning, the impending tragedy of this World War I-era story is hardly veiled: A prologue by Charlie (Aubrey Deeker), a lightning-phobic commoner-turned-soldier, warns that there are "sad parts," and the desperation with which Mary (Kathleen Coons) recalls her dream makes it clear that it's actually a nightmare. But the whirlwind is too precisely crafted and expertly executed to let audience cynicism creep in. Though its action jumps in time and place, the play is well-balanced in its alternating story lines of love and war. The combination of masculine and feminine qualities present in both characters -- and the actors' undeniable chemistry -- makes them not only realistic but likable.
-- Tricia Olzewski
THE TEMPEST -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse through Sept. 5)
What strange, pitiable figure is it that appears at the beginning of this production? The cheeks are chalky white, the eyes blackened and obscured. Could this be Tiresias, the celebrated blind prophet of mythology and ancient drama? It is, sort of. Director Christopher Henley, assistant directors Jenifer Deal and H. Lee Gable and dramaturge Cam Magee have decided to graft Tiresias onto Shakespeare's banished, magical Prospero, the unhappily ousted Duke of Milan. And since Tiresias spent seven years as a woman, Deal gets to play the part. She is the noble, meditative center of what turns out to be a pretty straightforward production of this, a revenge play with a benevolent heart. The show rises and falls almost entirely according to the varied strength of individual actors, and the standouts in the large cast truly stand out, including Meg Taintor as Prospero's usurping sibling Antonio. Deal is intriguing merely watching, in her character's sightless way, reacting with richly mixed emotions as her daughter falls in love and her enemies move within reach. The performance doesn't resound with all the depth the play has to offer, but it's a lucid piece of work.
-- Nelson Pressley
THE PRODUCERS -- (At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday)
"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
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?