Mini Reviews

Opening

THE LAST FIVE YEARS -- (At MetroStage through July 24)

Marriage can be a lonesome business. That's the poignant truth at the heart of Jason Robert Brown's ingenious two-actor musical, and it's a truth well illustrated in the spare, classy production under Jane Pesci-Townsend's direction. The story of Catherine (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and Jamie's (Mark Bush) courtship, marriage and separation unfolds in two directions at once. Jamie's songs -- there is virtually no spoken dialogue -- bowl along chronologically, while Catherine's numbers sneak backward through time; the two trajectories cross briefly in one romantic scene. Before and after that, alternating solos relate Jamie's success as a novelist, juxtaposed with Catherine's washout acting career. The contrasting energies of these two lives smolder, clear and sad, in Olivera and Bush's creditable performances. The backbone of the production, though, is the team of terrific musicians, led by musical director Howard Breitbart. The band is able to delineate and balance two polarized moods in such emotional numbers as the finale: the euphoric piano-dominated strains underscoring Catherine's new amorousness, and the wistful melody of the strings acknowledging, with Jamie, that love has died.

-- Celia Wren

RED, WHITE AND TUNA -- (At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through July 10)

What keeps the "Tuna" franchise fresh must be meanness, the seemingly bottomless reservoir of spite and self-regard among the yokels of fictional Tuna, Tex., that generates two hours' worth of zingy, twangy one-liners. Meanness, that's it -- that and two guys making quick changes from jeans to leisure suits to dresses. This is the most recent of the three "Tuna" shows concocted by Joe Sears and Jaston Williams with director Ed Howard. The show doesn't bother much with plot. Sears and Williams are content to play about a dozen characters each, most of whom are chewing on some sort of anger or resentment, and all of whom are deft at delivering a tart Texas punch line. Williams is the wiry one; his gallery of characters ranges from a relaxed ol' radio DJ to a vivacious waitress/caterer Helen Bedd. The stocky Sears plays his male characters with skill, but he's nothing short of magic in a dress: He surely holds the patent on chicken-fried drag. Sears and Williams don't rush anything, and they don't push their material. That's really why the "Tuna" shows continue to work: They are performed by a pair of unflappable pros.

-- Nelson Pressley

Continuing

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through July 31)

Style is served up by the champagne-bucketful in Keith Baxter's immensely pleasurable production of Oscar Wilde's vivid account of London swells in the early 1890s. The cast of 26 deftly manages the difficult trick of defining each character's specific perch on the social ladder, and Baxter's production holds its own as a polished and piquant guide to Wilde's world of pettiness, haughtiness and self-delusion. Although the play has a climactic moment of farce that is wonderfully realized here, the secrets unraveled in this "Fan" conform more to the dictates of melodrama than to those of drawing-room comedy. A cast of fine, diverting actors embroider a story revolving around the household of the Windermeres, the wealthy couple whose marriage is severely tested after Lady Windermere (Tessa Auberjonois) discovers the account book her husband (Andrew Long) has been keeping to record his clandestine payments to an older woman, one Mrs. Erlynne (Dixie Carter). It is the strength and warmth of Carter's performance that provides the play's steely backbone. And the designers give the physical world of the play a beautiful finish.

-- Peter Marks

THE LION KING -- (At the Hippodrome Theatre, Baltimore, through Sept. 4)

Discerning adults may notice that the story in this wildly popular Disney show is thinly stretched over a production that runs nearly three hours and that the ballads Elton John and Tim Rice added for the stage are yawners. But these things hardly matter. What the musical has accomplished is the inspired tailoring of an animated film to the imaginative measurements of the stage. When it comes to kids' spectacles, few productions do it better. This touring production is a virtual photocopy of the Broadway original, and that largely is a good thing. The director, Julie Taymor, reinterpreted the beloved 1994 blockbuster about the coming of age of Simba, a lion cub destined to rule Pride Rock. Musically and visually, Africa is as flavorfully woven into the stage version as it was lacking in the movie. Entrancing images of flora and fauna abound, but they embroider a lumbering story that adults and even tweeners are likely to find slow going at times. Nevertheless, Taymor's lavish production demonstrates to children that theater can still perform its own indelible acts of magic.

-- P.M.

MAMMA MIA! -- (At the National Theatre through Saturday)

Funny thing about these jukebox musicals that package pop hits as Broadway-style shows: You can't just plug them in and expect them to work. Yes, this Abba-driven show still has silly energy to spare and irresistible pop hooks around every corner, plus hordes of offstage singers faithfully replicating each familiar chorus and a pit band that seems to be having a blast pumping out that glossy Abba sound. In shorter supply, though, are leading performers who are really good at doing the karaoke thing with the Abba catalogue. Abba's familiar music begs to be sung with authority even when the characters are horsing around, and that happens less reliably here than on previous tours. The songs may be the stars of these jukebox musicals, but they still need singers, don't they?

-- N.P.

MEDEA -- (By Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse through Sunday)

Pure and simple is often the most secure way to go with a playwright such as Euripides, and it's the path that the Washington Shakespeare Company thankfully adopts, for the most part, in this sleek and intense new staging of the play. Under the lucid direction of Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter, the actors prove reliable guides through the tragedy's rapids of raw emotion. Delia Taylor, in particular, makes for a convincingly disturbed Medea; the more she allows herself to think, the more wedded she becomes to a self-abnegating scheme, butchering her two young sons as revenge on her betrayer of a husband. This production is indeed the diary of a mad housewife. The setting is timeless and right for the occasion. The hole in the center of the stage, filled with sand, is where we first see Medea hatching her plot and where she eventually slays her children, who are represented onstage by life-size dolls. Carrasquillo and MacWhorter must have issued the dictum during rehearsal that less is more, for the cast rarely over-emotes. The play's gripping climax is unsettling and yet without a trace of blood. In the final image, Taylor lies in the sandpit, enfolded in the bodies of the others actors. We're all, it seems, dragged down with Medea into the abyss.

-- P.M.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND -- (At the Round House Theatre through Sunday)

If you love someone, set them free -- that's the subtext of the most affecting scene in this solid production directed by Scot Reese. In the sequence, two elderly Caribbean peasants, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian (Beverly A. Cosham and David Emerson Toney), who have adopted Ti Moune (Montego Glover), the show's free-spirited heroine, sadly sanction her planned journey away from home. It's a touchingly human moment in a show that traffics in archetypes and Big Themes -- the resilience of love and of nature, the inevitability of death, class struggle, the power of storytelling -- all leavened by piquant Caribbean-flavored music. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty adapted the work from Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," a riff on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" set in the French Antilles.

-- C.W.

PACIFIC OVERTURES -- (At the Signature Theatre through July 10)

Director Eric Schaeffer, a Stephen Sondheim partisan, has a knack for rethinking big musicals in smaller packaging. Here, Signature has done Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman a service, effectively putting its own distinctive spin on one of the most challenging works in the Sondheim canon. This musical stakes out cerebral terrain for musical comedy: It's an attempt by American writers to tell the Darwinian story of an Eastern society overrun by the West, a culture that loses its way, then learns to adapt and thrive. With Schaeffer's minimalist approach, the set is reduced to a few poles, crude crates and a flimsy sun and the cast is winnowed to 10. Writ small, "Pacific Overtures" is still a voyage with big ideas.

-- 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.

-- P.M.

TAKE ME OUT -- (At the Studio Theatre through July 17)

A lyrical valentine to the national pastime encased in the turbulent story of a gay superstar, this play has been staged to virtual perfection by a team that can be described only as, well, fabulous. Richard Greenberg's locker room comedy-drama is an impassioned portrait of the game, but it also tackles such issues as race-baiting, gender politics and friendship. Director Kirk Jackson's production features four smashing performances -- by Tug Coker, M.D. Walton, Jake Suffian and Rick Foucheux -- anchoring this exploration of the trials and terrors of male bonding. Much of the story revolves around the tale's hero, Darren Lemming (Walton), who is handsome and regal. He is also gay, which he announces to the media, throwing the team into turmoil. Torn between their ingrown biases -- Lemming is also biracial -- and the pressure from society to be more tolerant, the players and manager are forced onto a treacherous playing field. Given that it's a locker room, working showers and all, there is -- you should know walking in -- a healthy amount of strutting in the altogether, which is a sustained and crucial aspect of the drama. Greenberg is pushing a lot of hot buttons, but what flames hottest is something that words ultimately fail: an irrational, unrequited love for a game.

-- P.M.

THERSITES -- (By Scena Theatre at the Warehouse Theater Second Stage through July 10)

Carter Jahncke plays the harmonica, imitates Elvis and swears a lot. He dodges missiles and talks about bestiality. And near the monologue's end, he starts spinning with arms outstretched, crying out as he whirls. Jahncke is "Thersites," the blind, foul-mouthed Greek soldier who in "The Iliad" criticizes Agamemnon and in turn gets beaten by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. You likely won't grasp any of those details from Robert McNamara's new play, however. And that seems to belie the point: "Thersites" is the first offering of a trilogy Scena calls "The Classics Made Easy," which purports to retell ancient epics from a different perspective and with a modern, streamlined sensibility. The idea's an interesting one, but those with a firm grasp of Greek myth will get more out of this production than will neophytes.

-- Tricia Olszewski