LENNY AND LOU -- (By Woolly Mammoth at the DCJCC's Goldman Theatre through Sept. 26)
You know those silly social taboos against suffocating your mother or having sex with your brother's girlfriend? Fugeddaboutem! Feel free to express yourself: Smother! Copulate! Live, in other words, as the low-rent Feinsteins do in Ian Cohen's smutty-funny cesspool of unbridled outer-borough neurosis. Directed with a fastballer's dexterity by Tom Prewitt, the production is comedy gone mental. No stunt is too shocking, and sometimes Cohen points the shenanigans in the direction of the baldly sophomoric. Nevertheless, Cohen is a swell composer of comic crises and the risible lines he gives these actors crackle with a buoyant authenticity. Cohen's dialogue is spoken with an antic zest by Prewitt's cast, which is smashingly up to the assignment. Michael Russotto's Lou is a sweet, whiny loser, such a schlep he makes his brother Lenny (Howard Shalwitz) seem a veritable Jude Law. "Lenny & Lou" offers a seriously twisted account of a patented family dynamic, the rivalry between a pair of brothers for a mother's love. What sets the dizzy plot in motion is a violent, cathartic act by Lou that, in a sense, consummates his love-hate relationship with his mother (Nancy Robinette), who has always favored Lenny. Cohen has constructed an entertaining, boundary-pushing comedy.
-- Peter Marks
VENUS -- (At the Olney Theatre Center through Sept. 26)
Nearly 200 years ago, a woman named Sartje Baartman was whisked out of Africa and exhibited in Europe as an anatomical freak for the amplitude of her caboose. Baartman was advertised as "The Venus Hottentot," a spectacle of titillation and revulsion. There's not much odd about Chinasa Ogbuagu's Baartman, though, in Eve Muson's staging of Suzan-Lori Parks's play. Muson isn't alone in hearing music in Parks's celebrated linguistic curlicues, but she may be among the first to turn parts of "Venus" into actual songs. The script is tricked-out -- counting backward through 31 scenes -- and Muson meets Parks's brainy showmanship head-on. In Act 1, the excess is particularly oppressive; it's a cluttered look and a clatter of sound. It calms down in Act 2 as the story dwells a bit on the odd semi-romance between Baartman and the Baron Docteur, who fetishizes her collection of body parts like a pervert engineer. The paradox of "Venus" is that despite the vaudeville tactics, Parks steers as far as she can from melodrama, yet this object lesson in exploitation keeps inching in that direction anyway. As a piece of writing, "Venus" is so brave, sweeping and rambling that it seems like a trap for directors to try to equal the repertoire of assertive moves in her work.
-- Nelson Pressley
BETRAYAL -- (By Fountainhead Theatre at Theater on the Run through Sept. 11)
Harold Pinter's 1978 play reverses the timeline on its story of infidelity, so the emotion is buried from the very start: Though there certainly can be as much feeling at the end of an affair as during its blossoming, the play begins two years past the point when Emma (Charlotte Akin) and Jerry (Dan Via) last saw each other, the attraction long since dead. "Betrayal" proceeds to jump back in years, ending with Emma and Jerry's first flirtatious moment at a house party in 1968, but Pinter re-creates their nine-year history with little more than flashes. We get one scene that portrays the height of their affair, for instance, and one that shows its demise, both of which take place at a flat the couple set up for their trysts. Fountainhead's cast fails to thicken Pinter's simple dialogue by connecting with the emotions behind it. Or even connecting with each other. Between scenes, photos of Emma and Jerry -- apparently stills of previous encounters -- are also projected on the screen hanging in the background. Their inclusion was perhaps a last-ditch attempt to add a layer of resonance that the script fails to evoke, but like the characters' small talk, it's only a meaningless distraction.
-- Tricia Olzewski
MAN WITH BAGS -- (By Longacre Lea at Catholic University's Callan Theatre through Sunday)
There are plenty of moments in Eugene Ionesco's play that one may associate with a stress dream -- being unable to remember your name, or somehow missing the train that was just about to arrive. When Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" begins to play, you know the dream has morphed into a nightmare. But for a nightmare, this production is pretty entertaining. It's best not to think too hard about how each scene does or doesn't fit with any of the others. Except for a central character, a nameless man (Jason Stiles) carrying two bags, and his apparent quest to return to his home town, there's little continuity in the play's plot or supporting characters. It's easy to enjoy the play superficially. But, for those who wish to dig deeper, there are plenty of messages, too, some of them metaphorical. A vaguely melancholic, unsettling atmosphere punctuates the strength of the production: Dreams don't have to be fully understood for emotion to break through.
MARY'S WEDDING -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Sunday)
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.
ONE RED FLOWER -- (At Signature Theatre through Oct. 3)
Based on actual letters home from soldiers on the front lines in Vietnam, from Bernard Edelman's book "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," this play's timely themes give it obvious curiosity value. It also has striking staging by director Eric Schaeffer, a cast of seven in polished voice and a passel of effervescent melodies by Paris Barclay that are infused with the energy of Motown and the Beach Boys. The action unfolds around the year-long tour of duty of Billy Bridges, played by Stephen Gregory Smith, a desk clerk who itches for the battlefield. The musical does not try to impose much shape on Billy's time in country -- like war itself, the show is a seesaw between episodes of ennui and horror. In its effort to embrace the complexity of war, the play is scrupulously balanced. However, while the missives the play is based on are infused with loneliness and dread and longing, the result does not include much drama. If Barclay wants us to experience a combat death as something to mourn, he must offer more than skeletal, epistolary evidence as to what we're losing.
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?
THE TEMPEST -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse through Sunday)
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.