A BAD FRIEND -- (At the D.C. Jewish Community Center through Nov. 28)
In light of the recent election results, it's uncanny that Theater J has opened this play, Jules Feiffer's McCarthy-era reminiscence in which America develops a climate of fear and the political left falls apart. The timing was right, yet the play lies flat despite some heartfelt writing by the gifted Feiffer. It's 1953, and Shelly (Jim Jorgensen) and Naomi (Valerie Leonard) dare not even say out loud what they really believe in (communism!). But Rose (Lily Balsen) can't quite buy into her parents' politics. As Rose escapes to the Brooklyn waterfront, she fends off a handsome young FBI agent and befriends a middle-aged amateur painter named Emil. This is a drama of crossed signals, betrayals and naivete; it seems like a cheat that such a promising tale of disillusionment feels so foregone and rather petty in the telling. "A Bad Friend" may never be really good, but it certainly could have been better.
-- Nelson Pressley
GRACE -- (By Wooly Mammoth at Warehouse Theatre through Dec. 19)
Anyone alarmed by the unbending certitude of those who wear their religion as an emblem of righteousness will be drawn to Craig Wright's creepily prescient comedy-drama of blood and Bibles. Director Michael John Garces is an expert navigator of the tricky pivots in the script. Steve (David Fendig) and Sara (Jennifer Mendenhall) are a husband and wife from Minnesota who have moved to Florida in a desperate grab for wealth. Steve harbors a dream fueled by religious fervor: turning run-down motels into gospel-themed inns. But Steve is a man of profound disturbances: In the play's opening sequence, he is holding a gun and standing over the bodies of Sara and a neighbor, Sam (Paul Morella); the murders are reenacted as if a film is being run in reverse, and the events leading up to the homicides are then recounted in flashback. Though you know of the hideous denouement, you hope for a deus ex machina, someone to save Sam and Sara. Alas, Wright says, through no power on Earth -- not even the prayers of the born-again -- does anyone get that kind of second chance.
-- Peter Marks
THE HIGHEST YELLOW -- (At Signature Theatre through Dec. 12)
When a character named Vincent van Gogh opens his mouth and begins to sing, you can be pretty certain that what comes out will sound a little off and a lot like pain. This the composer Michael John LaChiusa accomplishes in spades in his cerebral, inventive and ever so earnestly arty new musical. The show, directed by Eric Schaeffer, is in part an attempt to find an urgent musical vocabulary for ecstasy, to help us understand a visionary artist's desperate need to follow his rapture. The musical is set in 1888, in the hospital in Arles to which van Gogh (Marc Kudisch) was taken after he cut off his ear in a brothel in homage to a prostitute, played by Judy Kuhn. The musical's conceit is that the easily influenced Rey (Jason Danieley), a naif in love with van Gogh's prostitute, conspires to prevent the artist's release, at first out of devotion to him and later to keep him away from her. The romantic triangle is a means by which LaChiusa and the book's writer, John Strand, explore the notion of obsession, and how, when in the grips of one, life is both more painful and more interesting. The musical's lack of levity is cause for nothing as drastic as the cutting off of an ear. But those expecting a less astringent evening might find themselves wanting to tear out a hair or two.
IVANOV -- (At Studio Theatre through Dec. 12)
The first of Anton Chekhov's major efforts to distill cold truth was this 1887 tragicomic story of a landowner, Ivanov (Philip Goodwin), who lapses into emotional rigor mortis after the joys and pressures of material existence lose their meaning for him. The charms of this erratic drama are elusive. With a cast of 18, "Ivanov" is an ambitious undertaking, and for the occasion, Joy Zinoman, Studio's artistic director, has put together an ensemble that features some of the city's best-known actors, several of whom adapt effortlessly to the genteel rhythms of David Hare's accessible translation. At its heart, this is a portrait of a man who, once ahead of his time, has completely lost interest in any time at all. As Ivanov sinks ever more deeply into self-loathing and nihilism, a spectator can care no more than Ivanov himself whether he lives or dies. When at the final curtain a gunshot rings out, it reverberates like the sound of wish fulfillment.
LUISA FERNANDA -- (By Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Nov. 19)
Turn down the volume on this foray into zarzuela -- Spanish light opera -- and there are moments when it could be a play by Ibsen, as staged by a classical theater company. The costumes are black and white, the set is all clean lines and elegant minimalism, and everything is bathed in a chilly yet creamy Nordic light. The producers of this show have taken Federico Moreno Torroba's three-act operetta and classed it up so much that the occasional bawdiness of the original feels a little out of place. But it was the right decision. Placido Domingo, the general director of the Washington National Opera and this opera's baritone lead, is a partisan for the form. Zarzuela is generally silly and formulaic, but works like this one make serious musical and dramatic claims. Domingo's Vidal, a wealthy landowner, is so smitten with Luisa (sung by Maria Jose Montiel) that he will join in revolutionary fighting -- either side will do -- to win her. She sides with the rabble, he follows suit, and the contest for Luisa's love between Vidal and a bounder named Javier becomes increasingly a political contest as well. In the third act, Domingo suddenly goes for the emotional jugular, giving us the primal cry of the nice guy who finishes last. Moments of such authenticity are rare in opera, so even one instance is well worth the two-hour investment.
-- Philip Kennicott
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.
-- Celia Wren
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.
DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN -- (At Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre through Dec. 12)
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.
IL TROVATORE -- (By the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Saturday)
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 Saturday)
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.
-- Tricia Olszewski
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."
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.
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.