ONE GOOD MARRIAGE -- (At MetroStage through Nov. 21)
No one can resist a good story -- a simple truth that implies, as a corollary, that no one will be able to resist this smashing two-character play. Canadian playwright Sean Reycraft's darkly comic yarn is ingeniously written and extraordinarily suspenseful. The piece, adeptly directed by John Vreeke, unfolds in a simple, presentational manner: a man and a woman standing on a stage, telling a story that's both realistic and chilling. To give too much away would be to cheat future audiences, but it's safe to reveal that the young couple, Stephanie and Stewart, have reached their first anniversary after experiencing serious marital trauma -- the kind with a body count. None of Reycraft's skillful writing would do any good without a capable cast. Fortunately, Marcus Kyd (Stewart) and Toni Rae Brotonstwo (Stephanie) are fully able to exploit the tension in Reycraft's scenario. The couple's intimacy proves hugely entertaining for an audience, as well as giving new meaning to the old maxim "Marriage is not a word; it's a sentence."
-- Celia Wren
POUND -- (At Washington Stage Guild through Nov. 28)
Charged with treason for his fascist rants on radio in Italy during World War II, controversial poet Ezra Pound wound up in St. Elizabeths for more than a decade, as medical experts puzzled over his mental state and writer friends lobbied for his release. Unraveling the psychiatric mystery might have provided a juicy framework for a glimpse at tortured brilliance, but playwright Sean O'Leary manages only a grimly formulaic precis of a doctor's duel with a reluctant patient. In the waning weeks of Pound's commitment at St. Elizabeths, a new psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Polley (Kathleen Coons), has come on board to take a stab at some sort of breakthrough with Pound (Conrad Feininger). As eventually becomes apparent, however, this is really a morality play, turning on the secret agenda of the doctor, whose placid exterior conceals a streak of anguished cruelty as unsettling as Pound's. The unmasking of Dr. Polley's motives is designed to push the play to a shattering dramatic climax. Although the idea is intriguing -- the psychiatrist as prosecutor, using access to a patient's shame and insecurity as a means of avenging his moral crimes -- the language of the play is stiff and unconvincing. The play's other major shortcoming is the raggedness of its central fictional conceit.
-- Peter Marks
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa Del Pueblo/Calvary Methodist Church through Nov. 21)
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 vitality. The modernizing also accords with Fo's enthusiasm for keeping his works 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.
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 is a petri dish for the clash between tradition and American's polyglot adoptive culture. The actors all succeed in the essential task of seeming of the period, though, possessed of the most nuanced of the roles, Felix Solis and Yetta 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 burn that this "Anna" has to offer, unfortunately. The rest is just slow.
BLITHE SPIRIT -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)
Noel Coward's 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 the presentation helps make up for the occasional tedium of Coward's script.
-- Tricia Olszewski
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. 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. 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
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 wonder what's so funny.
THE LIGHT OF EXCALIBUR -- (At the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab through Sunday)
In this play 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. Unfortunately, the deftness of the 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.
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.