ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa Del Pueblo/Calvary Methodist Church through Nov. 21)
When election tensions go through the roof, must artistic subtlety go out the window? Director Grady Weatherford has planted so many heavy-handed contemporary political references throughout this satirical farce that one almost wonders whether he doubts his audience's intelligence. Admittedly, the controversial grace notes jibe with the subversive spirit of playwright Darian Fo, whose work is as celebrated for its anti-authoritarian bite as it is for comic and even buffoonish vitality. The modernizing also accords with Fo's enthusiasm for keeping his works relevant and fresh. It was, after all, a current event -- in which an Italian anarchist, detained for questioning, plunged from a fourth-floor window in the police headquarters in Milan -- that in 1970 inspired this caustic piece of slapstick, set in a police station in the aftermath of a similarly suspicious episode. In this barbed caper, a group of corrupt and incompetent cops become the unwitting dupes of a sly lunatic, played with crackpot intensity by Karl Miller. Here the acting, the design and the artists' faith in the audience's perceptiveness effectively connect Fo's message to contemporary experience without resorting to allusions to recent headlines.
-- Celia Wren
DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN -- (At Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre through Nov. 28)
Comedian Rob Becker made a killing by sharply packaging shopworn observations in the 1990s as his one-man show toured the country and then became the longest-running solo show in Broadway history. Becker's stage persona was pretty irresistible; he melded stereotypes and archetypes in a way that captured the country's fascination with pop psychology. Though actor Chris Sullivan, Becker's replacement, is a skilled performer and reasonably adept with a punch line, he's almost too good, coming across as too toned and polished. That makes him slightly implausible here, for Becker's modern-day Caveman is an apparently insensitive, inarticulate slob. Some of the material remains sure-fire, and Becker's explorations are not without droll insights. Sullivan has the self-deprecation bit down pat, and the piece is still a gentle, nonthreatening artifact of affection. Becker was hardly an inimitable talent onstage, so watching Sullivan go through Becker's paces isn't unthinkable. But it's not a clean fit: The actor is too plainly dressed in borrowed robes.
-- Nelson Pressley
IL TROVATORE -- (By the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Nov. 13)
There are three possible reasons why you might want to attend this production of Verdi's opera. They are (a) the smart, sure, sensitive and well-paced conducting of Music Director Heinz Fricke; (b) the majesty and dignity of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves's portrayal of Azucena; (c) Verdi's rich, fierce, tuneful score, which survives somehow, battered but intact, to fight another day. Aside from that, the production is a thoroughgoing horror. Graves aside, the singers strive mightily to pull themselves up onto the lowest rungs of mediocrity (were we really at the Kennedy Center?). The staging, by director Stephen Lawless, is almost unrelievedly dreary. The stark fact remains that this is nowhere near good enough, not for Verdi, not for the Kennedy Center, not at prices that rise to $290 per seat.
-- Tim Page
THE LIGHT OF EXCALIBUR -- (At the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab through Nov. 7)
In this new play about the Arthurian legend, by award-winning playwright Norman Allen, once again we have the leadership lessons, the wizardly wisdom, the blade that's stubbornly stuck in that rock. But this time there's a twist: Allen's script centers not on the once and future king but on Agnes, a cranky modern teenager who's transported back in time by the wizard, Merlin, so that her Information Age insight, honed on computer games, can help resolve the snarled geopolitics of medieval Britain. If this sounds ridiculous in theory, it remains so in execution, despite the best efforts of director Gregg Henry and his team of excellent actors. Rana Kay's Agnes has an air of adolescent resentment that masks sorrow about her ill mother. And Scott Kerns plays the princely Arthur with quiet charisma. Unfortunately, the deftness of these performers can't mask the awkwardness of Allen's story line. However, the work of the show's designers -- on a par with the acting -- is evocative enough to make one understand, at least for a moment, why our era insists on voyaging repeatedly back to the era of the Round Table.
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.
-- Peter Marks
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
DIAMOND DEAD -- (By Landless Theatre Company at the District of Columbia Arts Center through Saturday)
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.
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.
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?
TABLETOP -- (At Round House Theatre through Sunday)
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.