Mini Reviews

Opening

HOST AND GUEST -- (By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum through Oct. 16)

This production, fluidly staged by Synetic Theater artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, bestows a balletic eloquence on a bloody, age-old theme: the unending cycle of violence brought on by religious intolerance. Aided by Roland Reed's economical text, Vato Kakhidze's wrenching score and Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's cunningly primitive set design, the play is a superlative example of Synetic's daring and artistry. While on a deer hunt, Muslim peasant Joqola (Paata Tsikurishvili), befriends a hunter (Kavsadze) in need of shelter for the night, offering him a bed in his house. When the neighbors in his mountain village in the Caucasus learn of Joqola's act of kindness, they are enraged: The hunter is a Christian and even worse, a man implicated in the murder of, among others, Joqola's brother. The climactic battle between the men of Joqola's and his friend's villages is rendered with seamless craftsmanship. The lethal score-settling at its core is as familiar as this morning's front page. Synetic's depictions of ancient bloodletting can feel far too relevant for comfort.

-- Peter Marks

THE KING AND I -- (At Wolf Trap's Filene Center through Sunday)

This gorgeously packaged production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 hit suffers primarily from weak direction and a narrow performance in one principal role. As Anna Leonowens, the widow who comes to Siam in the early 1860s to tutor the king's children, Sandy Duncan rises like a warm, new star in a very old night sky. Despite the culture clashes in the story, everything turns on Anna's repeated demand that the king make good on his promise to provide her with a house, a promise he claims to have forgotten. The ongoing argument quickly becomes a cover for growing romantic feelings that each is too proud to reveal until their hearts take over, pouring out in the big number, "Shall We Dance?" But director Baayork Lee has paid scant attention to this, allowing Anna and the king (Martin Vidnovic) to engage in what seems a businesslike battle of wills until the dialogue demands otherwise. But it's too late then. The romance ends up feeling forced rather than inevitable. The lack of a convincing romance at its heart only throws the dated parts of "The King and I" -- sweet primitive people, patronizing Western assumptions about the East -- into relief.

-- William Triplett

MACBETH -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 24)

The Thane waffles, the Lady schemes, the King dies, the blood spills. The component parts all appear to be shipshape in Michael Kahn's handsome new staging of "Macbeth." Yet even as the ever-efficient Shakespeare Theatre sets the machinery of tragedy in motion, all the gauges indicate a vital element in short supply: electricity. This being Kahn's handiwork, the production is always smooth and lucid. There are inspired choices, and it's all easy on the eyes, but this production is also confoundingly easy on the nerves. You wonder, as the Macbeths and their henchmen cut a gory swath through the Scottish nobility, when this reign will start to feel like terror. Even the three witches whom Macbeth consults for glimpses of his future are disappointingly domestic. Most debilitating, however, is the pairing of Patrick Page's Macbeth and Kelly McGillis's Lady Macbeth, a combination that produces no arresting chemical reaction at all. The production is on a sort of seesaw, perched between a few interludes of insight and others that feel run-of-the-mill. "Macbeth" is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, a model of brutal economy with little to distract an audience from Macbeth's march to ignominy and death. As for the larger, bleaker mission of "Macbeth," we'll just have to put on hold for a while that satisfying theater trip, the descent into soul-crushing darkness.

-- P.M.

Continuing

BETRAYAL -- (By Fountainhead Theatre at Theater on the Run through Saturday)

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

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.

-- P.M.

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.

-- 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.

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