CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL -- (At Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va., through July 31)
On Washington's politically impoverished stages, the war in Iraq has been getting virtually no attention. But 60 miles away, in a bucolic river town in the West Virginia panhandle, the blowback from hostilities in the Persian Gulf wafts through as if theatergoers were thinking of nothing else. Credit Ed Herendeen, producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, with carving out a program that feels as of-the-moment as a blogger on the Euphrates. It's refreshing, really, to come to this festival, held annually on the campus of Shepherd University, and escape from escapism, to find writers for the stage playing with enemy fire. In three home-front dramas, the festival's writers address Iraq directly and obliquely. The breakdown of a family steeped in military tradition ("American Tet"); the anguish of a woman whose Ivy League son wants desperately to be a soldier ("Sonia Flew"); the tumult in the heartland when the business of national security turns dirty ("The God of Hell"): These are the thematic concerns of a festival that brandishes a somber mirror for sobering times. A fourth play, Sheri Wilner's "Father Joy," about a student's affair with her art professor, her battles with her hectoring mother, and a father who is supposedly fading, literally, like an old photograph, is the festival's sorest sore thumb, an impossibly treacly exercise. It oddly unbalances the festival. The Iraq plays range from the outrageous polemic of Sam Shepard's "God of Hell" to the intimate testimonial of Melinda Lopez's "Sonia Flew." These two pieces are, in fact, the festival's better offerings. The only intriguing aspect of the third, Lydia Stryk's "American Tet," is its title. Set on a U.S. military base, the work laboriously relates the growing disenchantment of the wife of a retired soldier after her son goes off to Iraq and she befriends a Vietnamese waitress. The festival's strongest entry is the expert staging of Shepard's "The God of Hell," a short play that premiered off-Broadway last fall. This version, directed by Herendeen, is in virtually all ways superior; it's a much more skillful -- and far funnier -- elucidation of the contemporary terrors Shepard seeks to illuminate.
-- Peter Marks
CROWNS -- (At Arena Stage through Aug.7)
"Crowns," the millinery retrospective about African American women and the caps, turbans and straw hats that adorn their heads on all-important occasions, is back for yet another engagement at Arena Stage. The show, the most popular Arena's Kreeger space has ever housed, percolates on an abundant supply of goodwill, courtesy of an ebullient cast and an equally high-octane roster of gospel songs. It's a perfectly harmless evening, sweet-tempered and nostalgic, and if you enjoy perky chitchat further enlivened by rousing church music, the production will not disappoint you. But don't expect too intense a rendezvous with black culture. Adapted by Regina Taylor from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and reminiscences collected by Craig Marberry, the play imposes a modest structure on the testimonials of women about their hats. As one might expect, the evening's effectiveness depends greatly on a liberal application of effervescence. Here's where the production earns its stripes. This latest incarnation of "Crowns," directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey, was developed at regional theaters in Buffalo and Rochester. (The first production at Arena, in December 2003, was directed by Taylor and was revived there last summer.) Caffey elicits the requisite vivacity from the performers, and especially from the trio of Angela Karol Grovey, LaVon D. Fisher and Joy Lynn Matthews. Gretha Boston, a Tony winner for her work in the 1994 revival of "Show Boat," exudes a creamy craftsmanship in a strong a cappella solo. Davis, Barbara D. Mills and Rob Barnes, the last serving as an all-purpose male figure, are assets as well.
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE -- (By Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater through July 23)
The setup of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" couldn't seem more tender: In an Irish mountain village, Maureen Folan cares for Mag, her getting-on-in-years mum. Maureen cooks her mother porridge on their wood-burning stove, and they pass the time listening to the radio. Maureen also tells Mag stories -- her favorite being a graphic daydream in which Maureen lures a murderer to their home to do away with the old bat for good. When Mag points out that the criminal would probably kill Maureen, too, the fed-up daughter decides it would be an acceptable price to pay. So the Folans aren't quite the happy family after all. And in this production, the bile is particularly strong. "Beauty Queen" is the first of playwright Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy. In McDonagh's world, humor and hostility go hand in hand. In the production's opening scenes, director Mark A. Rhea keeps the volume high for the interactions among the lonely 40-year-old Maureen (Nanna Ingvarsson), the mean Mag (Linda High) and even their teenage neighbor, Ray Dooley (Joe Baker). Just when the fever pitch is becoming grating and, worse, unbelievable, a little romance quiets all the bitterness -- and it's actually this brief ray of hope that ends up delivering the play's most powerful wallop.
-- Tricia Olszewski
CENTRAL PARK WEST/RIVERSIDE DRIVE -- (At the Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center through July 24)
Woody Allen seems perfectly content to churn out one small, inconsequential movie after another and occasionally squeeze in a small, inconsequential play. He was once a hero for many guys my age. There was a time when my friends and I awaited a new Allen project the way my daughter holds vigils for J.K. Rowling. Allen, though, lost me after the whole Mia/Soon-Yi mess. As he's grown older, his tone-deaf penchant for casting himself as a romantic lead against ever-younger female co-stars hasn't helped either. Evidence of his take-him-or-leave-him status is confirmable in the pairing by Theater J of two of his more recent one-act plays, "Central Park West" (1995) and "Riverside Drive" (2003). Apart from their both being named for emblematic New York thoroughfares, the playlets are bound by the recurring obsessions of his early work -- sex, psychotherapy, death -- as well as a late-career absorption in the subject of infidelity. The evening is mildly diverting and brought to the stage in reasonable shape by director Steven Carpenter, though in the opener, "Central Park West," the actors massage the material too shrilly to harvest all the laughs. "Riverside Drive" is fresher. It features a brilliant comic lick and a trio of deft performances.
-- Peter Marks
THE EMPEROR JONES -- (By American Century Theater at Gunston Arts Center through July 23)
The drumbeat, at first, is enough to drive you crazy. For nearly a half-hour, the beat -- courtesy of Barbara Weber -- is strong and insistent. Of course, the rhythm's ability to get under your skin is all part of the experience. Eugene O'Neill's 1921 expressionist drama is about one man's descent from power to madness. Brutus Jones (Bus Howard), a convicted murderer, escaped the United States and took over an island in the West Indies. But now the natives have tired of their emperor's rule, and a rebellion is planned. Jones decides to escape to the woods. The play, at this point, turns into a monologue -- it's just the emperor, his demons and, yes, once again the pulse of Weber's drum. The script's brevity -- this production runs just over an hour -- is the play's most obvious downfall. What is there, however, is pretty mesmerizing stuff.
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 embroiders 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 Carter's performance that provides the play's steely backbone.
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 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.
-- Celia Wren
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. 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.
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.
TAKE ME OUT -- (At Studio Theatre through July 24)
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 and the pressure from society to be more tolerant, the players and manager are forced onto a treacherous playing field. 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.
LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)
Something's climatically amiss in this staging of Peter Brook's version of "Carmen." The forecast calls for a heat wave, but the production remains stranded in the cold. The ingredients of Brook's radical reinvention of Georges Bizet's familiar opera have been stirred into director Jim Petosa's revival: streamlined libretto, pared-down cast and dirt-strewn setting. What hasn't made the trip to Olney is anything to make the pulse race. In his efforts at stripping "Carmen" to its core, Brook sought to dynamite our expectations about the opera. His reductive take heaved with sweat and sex and style. On Olney's main stage, however, Brook's handiwork feels remote. The sense of arm's-length exposure is reinforced by the surprisingly mild performances. No trace of combustibility flickers between Darren T. Anderson's Don Jose and Stephanie Chigas's Carmen. If Carmen has no magnetism, cannot draw us effortlessly into the whirlpool of her romantic deceptions, it really doesn't matter how well she sings.