ANDREA CHENIER -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center through Oct. 2)
With the exception of a few sturdy arias and duets, Umberto Giordano's opera is not especially distinguished. So it is left to the singers, the conductor, the orchestra and -- especially -- the stage director to capture our attention. And here a schism opens up, for my guess is that those who love "Chenier" may well have been affronted by the staging, while those who admired the staging may have been disappointed with "Chenier" itself. The story is based on the trials of Andrea Chenier, a gifted poet and onetime revolutionary slaughtered by the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror. Director Mariusz Trelinski approached the staging as an eternal, multi-culti parable. Some of this was effective, some of it was ridiculous, most of it was at least interesting. The singing, too, was generally good, including Salvatore Licitra, who sang the role of Chenier. And, as usual, Eugene Kohn does everything an opera conductor is supposed to do -- support the lead singers, coordinate the chorus and orchestra, make a connection between the stage and the pit, and keep it all vivid and exciting.
-- Tim Page
THE ELEPHANT MAN -- (By Catalyst Theater Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop though Oct. 16)
More than 25 years after it was written, "The Elephant Man" continues to leave a large footprint in the repertory. It's not that Bernard Pomerance wrote an enduringly insightful, reliably wrenching drama when he took on the true story of the wretchedly disfigured John Merrick, yet another 19th-century soul exploited as a freak. The hardiness of the play is due largely to the fact that as a piece of middlebrow entertainment, it's impeccably built. Pomerance's writing is full of the kind of buffed logic and flawlessly crafted epigrams that sound plummy in the mouths of skilled actors. The tone's overriding formality exists to be punctured, usually by the outwardly misshapen yet intellectually supple Mr. Merrick, and there is satisfaction to be had with every pop. Primarily, though, the script offers a challenge for an actor willing to convey Merrick's grotesqueries without makeup or significant help from wardrobe. Scott Fortier's inventiveness and discipline in playing Merrick are impressive, and Fortier aptly balances the body's agony with tenderness of spirit. Most of the supporting acting feels a little green, but the superb Valerie Leonard is on hand to deliver charming, nuanced work as Mrs. Kendal, the actress who takes a shine to Merrick. The delicately rendered conversations between Leonard and the artfully fragile Fortier are irresistible.
-- Nelson Pressley
LIVING OUT -- (At Round House Theatre through Oct. 10)
You've heard this story before, the one about the employer and the domestic, struggling to make sense of their own stressful worlds while groping for an understanding of each other's? Playwright Lisa Loomer takes her turn with the topic in her new guilty-yuppie play. It would be difficult to imagine this overly familiar material being served more capably than in Wendy C. Goldberg's vibrant staging, or for there to be actresses better suited to the central roles than Joselin Reyes and Holly Twyford. At times, this feels like two plays. One is a comedy about the wacky rich ladies of Santa Monica and the Central American nannies who hate them. The other is a drama about Ana, a refugee from El Salvador (Reyes) who watches the infant of Nancy, a type-A entertainment lawyer (Twyford). The comic aspects are consumed by a quartet of terrific actresses who play the sniping, competitive ladies and the sniping, competitive nannies. With its strong supporting actors, the cast is without a weak link. Goldberg conducts her ensemble with what feels like old-fashioned boulevard comedy know-how; the punch lines land effortlessly. But most of all, it is the strength of Reyes's soft-spoken Ana that holds the play together.
-- Peter Marks
M. BUTTERFLY -- (At Arena Stage through Oct. 17)
J. Hiroyuki Liao's enticing Song Liling, the enigmatic tempter/temptress who ensnares a gullible French diplomat in love and espionage, is reason enough to embrace this production, staged with theatrical dash by Tazewell Thompson. But he is far from the only reason. As the credulous embassy official, narrating the astonishing tale (based on a true story) of his longtime affair with a Chinese man he believed to be a woman, Stephen Bogardus conjures with a compelling grace his character's contradictions. The director, too, wraps David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning tragicomedy in a stylish package. The supporting cast is just as effective. In short, this is Arena energized and fully in its element, making the most of a play whose topicality has, if anything, intensified over the years. Though it chronicles a folly of the most intimate kind, "M. Butterfly" is just as cleverly an examination of the arrogance of a set of false assumptions made on a grander scale: that of the West's misreading of other cultures, and the sorry consequences that often ensue.
RUSSIAN NATIONAL POSTAL SERVICE -- (At Studio Theatre through Oct. 17)
Someone in the annals of fiction must suffer a more wretched daily existence than the hollow-cheeked pensioner in Oleg Bogaev's play. But Bogaev certainly makes a strong case for penury and boredom as the ultimate tests of human endurance in this surrealist folk tale about surviving on physical and psychic crumbs in modern Russia. The piece, directed by Paul Mullins, is a mirror of the life of its reclusive hero, Ivan Zhukov (Floyd King); it's both whimsical and arid. The premise is that in the newly liberated, economically deprived social order, everyone is free to create his own personal gulag. Ivan, retired from a life of arduous labor and receiving meager government benefits, confines himself to a musty city apartment. His only entertainment is a bustling epistolary life that he carries on with a gallery of imaginary correspondents, old friends he hasn't seen in years, or world leaders he hasn't a chance of ever meeting. At 85 intermissionless minutes, the play is fairly brief and intriguingly offbeat.
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE -- (By American Century Theater at the Gunston Arts Center through Oct. 9)
So this cop, this pinball wizard and this guy named Kit Carson walk into this bar -- as do a newsboy, a nurse, a longshoreman, a would-be vaudevillian, an Arab harmonica-player and . . . Well, suffice it to say that William Saroyan's play, set in a 1939 San Francisco saloon, is not one of those intimate two- or three-character plays that help theater companies keep budgets low and curtain calls short. This rambling, bittersweet classic is meant to conjure up a restless panorama of American life, and that's certainly accomplished in this energetic and mostly entertaining production. With a couple of exceptions the acting of the 19-member cast leaves something to be desired, but Terry D. Kester's judicious direction creates fluctuating moods and rhythms that make the play a wry, profound and sometimes funny reflection of life in this country, and maybe life in general. Set on the eve of World War II, the play resonates with a certain amount of social consciousness, but in this production, it's the script's whimsy that comes off best.
-- Celia Wren
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 lethal score-settling is as familiar as this morning's front page. Synetic's depictions of ancient bloodletting can feel far too relevant for comfort.
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. 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. The romance ends up feeling forced rather than inevitable.
-- William Triplett
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. Cohen has constructed an entertaining, boundary-pushing comedy.
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. The production is on a sort of seesaw, perched between a few interludes of insight and others that feel run-of-the-mill.
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.
SHEAR MADNESS -- (At the Kennedy Center Theater Lab indefinitely)
This interactive murder mystery, set in a Georgetown beauty parlor, is a mechanical comedy featuring a gallery of obvious stereotypes and a bottomless barrel of bad jokes. 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?
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.