Mini Reviews

Opening

BLITHE SPIRIT -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Nov. 7)

Noel Coward's season-appropriate confection about a marriage gone spookily south is as weightless as Halloween itself. Complacent couple Charles (Paul DeBoy) and Ruth (Julie-Ann Elliott), dry martinis in hand, are awaiting the arrival of a psychic medium, Madame Arcati (Halo Wines). Novelist Charles has invited her to their home for research purposes. Neither takes seriously the somewhat batty Arcati, who flits about their home to establish a connection with the dead. Charles, however, is soon made a believer. After the table-wobbling seance is over and Arcati goes home, a new guest appears: Elvira (Kate Goehring), Charles's playful first wife, who can't leave without Arcati's assistance. Despite the Olney cast's nimble handling of Coward's sophisticated and frequently witty language, the plot's a bit thin. Happily, the thoroughness of Olney's presentation helps make up for the occasional tedium of Coward's script.

-- Tricia Olszewski

LA LECHUGA -- (By Teatro de la Luna at Gunston Arts Center through Nov. 13)

Three estranged siblings, one vegetative father and a nine-year burden that's tearing a couple apart: Venezuelan playwright Cesar Sierra packs a lot of drama into his 80-minute dark comedy. Every year the Martinez children -- who otherwise don't speak -- gather for their dad's birthday even though he's been brain-dead for nearly a decade. This "celebration" is extra-contentious: Hector (Mario Marcel) and wife Virginia (Nucky Walder) have been caring for her father since he got sick, but now Hector wants one of Virginia's brothers to relieve them. When the brothers scoff at the idea, everyone butts heads until a morally questionable decision is made. Teatro's cast members cut sharp characters in the two brief acts, while director Harold Ruiz amps up the hysteria, usually to slapstick effect. Though the chaos is at times mildly funny, the gravity of the underlying argument doesn't lend itself to wackiness, and the audience may be left wondering what's so funny.

-- T.O.

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN -- (At Center Stage through Sunday)

Don't for a minute trust the genteel surface of this play. What Oscar Wilde had in mind while wielding his poison pen was a gilt-edged knife in the back of London aristocracy. The brutal rigidity of Victorian England is the play's metier -- that, and the relief that same society found in tawdry rumor and even tawdrier scandal. These two strains of Wilde's 1892 comedy are wound together capably in Irene Lewis's sturdy production. Sharply drawn performances by Mary Catherine Wright (playing the bilious Duchess of Berwick) and Felicity Jones (the fetching Mrs. Erlynne) raise the proceedings to a level above that of most American renderings of English comedy of manners. The fancy crowd that orbits Lord Windermere (Michael Bakkensen) and his insecure young wife (Mahira Kakkar) have cast the heroic Mrs. Erlynne from their midst. Played by Jones with a hard-edged sensuality, Mrs. Erlynne is irresistible, and her allure worries Lady Windermere: Why is her husband slipping Mrs. Erlynne loads of money? More to the point, how could Lord Windermere have led his spotless wife to the brink of public shame over his supposed dalliance? The gears of the play grind rather sluggishly, and this isn't Lewis's most memorable outing. It's possible, though, to have mixed feelings about this venture and still be a, um, fan.

-- Peter Marks

Continuing

ANNA IN THE TROPICS -- (At Arena Stage through Nov. 21)

The only thing that catches fire in this disappointing staging of the story of a family of cigar makers in sultry Depression-era Tampa is the tobacco. What director Jo Bonney presents on the stage of the Kreeger Theater is a surprisingly static piece of drama. The cigar factory is oddly immaculate, and so is Nilo Cruz's poetry. The story is interlaced with themes from Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," which is narrated daily in the factory by a "lector" (Jason Manuel Olazabal) who has been hired to read stories to the illiterate workers. The factory, owned by Santiago (Mateo Gomez) and his brother Cheche (Chaz Mena), is a petri dish for the clash between tradition and American's polyglot adoptive culture, while the shopworn roles of men and women come under attack, too: Santiago's older daughter, Conchita (Yetta Gottesman), bristles at the inequity in her marriage to Palomo (Felix Solis). The actors all succeed in the essential task of seeming of the period, though, possessed of the most nuanced of the roles, Solis and Gottesman offer the most incisive portrayals. Gottesman, in particular, gives a voluptuous credibility to a woman in search of a more potent way of satisfying a need for attention and affection. That's all the slow burn that this "Anna" has to offer, unfortunately. The rest is just slow.

-- P.M.

DIAMOND DEAD -- (By Landless Theatre Company at the District of Columbia Arts Center through Oct. 30)

Zombie rock musical, anyone? A sexy young Goth named Aria DeWinter (Rachel Anne Warren) once loved a rock band called Diamond Dead, and it broke her heart when she accidentally killed the whole group, including Dead frontman Dr. Diabolicus (Andrew Lloyd Baughman). To make amends she's struck a deal with Death and is bringing the band back for another run at stardom. They're still dead, of course, but who says zombies can't rock? This actual B-movie project is shrouded somewhere in the dead zone of preproduction. For those who can't wait for the film, Landless has put together a spunky little production. It comes across like the eager nephew of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," flaunting its tacky habits and urging the audience to join in. Director Shirley Serotsky's show veers between overwound and woozy; it's a roughed-in piece of trash, with semi-polished trash probably being the goal. The supporting acting and musicianship are about what you'd expect in a no-budget camp/grunge exercise, but Baughman, who did the stage adaptation and musical direction, and Warren, who designed the set and costumes, are both nicely laid-back and watchable.

-- Nelson Pressley

MACBETH -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday)

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. The production is on a sort of seesaw, perched between a few interludes of insight and others that feel run-of-the-mill.

-- P.M.

THE MATCHMAKER -- (At Ford's Theatre through Sunday)

The best thing that ever happened to this play was Jerry Herman. Herman added a jaunty score to Thornton Wilder's story of Dolly Levi's relentless pursuit of Horace Vandergelder, thereby transforming it into "Hello, Dolly!" Ford's Theatre's energetic new leader, Paul Tetreault, tries to defend the honor of Herman's source material, but Wilder's play is high-end hokum, reveling in nostalgia for a bygone era, with heaping tablespoons of sugar. The comedy is rooted in unrelenting preciousness; only with the arrival in the final scene of the perfectly cast Lola Pashalinski as a clueless dowager do the proceedings loosen up in a way that feels vaguely contemporary. Otherwise, though, "The Matchmaker" is resistible, and no matter how pretty the design, it's undressed now without Herman's music.

-- P.M.

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?

-- P.M.

TABLETOP -- (At Round House Theatre through Oct. 31)

Rob Ackerman's acutely observed play is about an advertising-world martinet and the studio in which he plies his profoundly petty trade. A comedy about advertising almost by definition has to concern itself with the absurd magnification of very insignificant matters, and "Tabletop," trenchantly brought to life by director Jane Beard, is no exception. The actors here have been extremely well cast, and Beard deploys them expertly. Commercial director Marcus (Jerry Whiddon) is on a tight deadline to film a 30-second spot for a new frozen fruit drink, and his bedside manner is slightly less genteel than that of Stanley Kowalski. He's a bully and a screamer, berating the underlings. The dynamic here is familiar to anyone who has ever worked for someone with the lungs, but not the courage, for real leadership. The more things go wrong with the shoot, the sillier the endeavor becomes. With its locker-room ambiance and tech-world vocabulary, the play is very smart about the way men converse at work, about why shop talk is such a comfortable masculine language. The comedy has to do with the loss of proportion, how much the studio denizens make of their pathetic task. This is the narrow lens, Ackerman seems to be saying, through which these skilled workers are forced to live their lives.

-- P.M.

VAREKAI -- (By Cirque du Soleil at RFK Stadium through Sunday)

Clothes, it seems, make the acrobat. In this abundantly satisfying extravaganza, directed by Dominic Champagne, the dazzle doesn't end with the contortions of a woman who bends like Gumby, or a pair of aerialists who perform synchronized swimming skills in midair. No, the thrills under the big top extend to the work of Eiko Ishioka, whose costumes precipitously raise the bar on wonder. Cirque, in other words, has never looked more magical. The costumes are a reflection of Cirque's careful cultivation of an idea of spectacle that integrates to an astonishing degree story, movement, music and design.

-- P.M.