POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 7)
Predictable salvos from Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are being upstaged by a premiere featuring a walking, talking teddy bear. Porgy, the bear, serves as the benevolent narrator in Snoo Wilson's erratic but engaging "Lovesong of the Electric Bear." The bear (played by Tara Giordano) turns out to be a clever device for probing the mind of mathematician, code breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing, who led a breathtakingly brilliant and ultimately tragic life. The scenes are brief and pointed, and director Cheryl Faraone creates a tense, questing atmosphere. Wilson's on fertile ground throughout the play as he explores the cruelty and ignorance Turing endured for his homosexuality. The ending is surprising and beautiful -- romantic, even, thanks to that adoring inanimate bear. Less interesting by far is a pair of smug warhorses, Albee's "The American Dream" and Pinter's "One for the Road," one-acts sharing a bill with Pinter's infinitesimal "Press Conference." "Dream" is an angry cartoon satirizing what Albee saw as the fatuous family values of 1961 America. By reviving it now, the Potomac implicitly suggests that snippy ridicule and outrageous caricature are still what we deserve. Pinter's best work was behind him when he wrote "One for the Road" in the 1980s. The menace and complexity that marked the dramas that made his name are gone, replaced by an embarrassingly cliched portrait of evil in a three-piece suit. While sipping a cocktail, this monster toys with the transparently innocent victim he's had brutally tortured. The rage registers, but the creative spark is sorely missed.
-- Nelson Pressley
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE -- (By Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater through Saturday)
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
THE CLEAN HOUSE -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Aug. 14)
This is a delicate play for rough times. Promising young playwright Sarah Ruhl offers up a radical set of notions: that human beings are not inherently selfish, that people can ask for forgiveness and be granted it with grace, that we can live without telling lies to each other -- and even die laughing. The staging Ruhl's play receives, under the canny direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman, accentuates her poetic worldview with few harmfully sugary detours. The production has been blessed, too, with a beguiling central performance by Guenia Lemos as Mathilde, a dreamy Brazilian woman in her mid-twenties who's hired as a maid -- albeit an inefficient one -- in the home of married doctors Lane (Naomi Jacobson) and Charles (Mitchell Hebert). Lane's sister Virginia (Sarah Marshall), a depressive clean-aholic, willingly takes up Mathilde's slack and secretly becomes her sister's housekeeper. If the evening begins with each character aswirl in his or her own eddy, by the end they've been drawn together in one irresistible vortex. For the best reasons, "The Clean House" leaves you wanting more.
-- Peter Marks
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL -- (At Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va., through Sunday)
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.
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.
HAIRSPRAY -- (At the Kennedy Center through Aug. 21)
With an exuberant bubble-gum score and unvarnished optimism intact, the touring version of this eight-time Tony award-winning musical packs pleasure aplenty. In the story, the abuse heaped on Tracy, the plucky fat girl who wants to dance on a local "American Bandstand" TV show in the Baltimore of 1962, makes her a natural ally for the city's black kids, banned from performing on the program except on a designated day each month. The show is a fairy tale, a '60s idealist's vision of racial barriers coming down through pop music and dance crazes and kids like Tracy. However, a few unfunny things have happened on the way to the Kennedy Center. For one, there has been shameful cutting of corners, such as skimping on scenery. Also, this show lacks star wattage, most notably in mother-hen Edna Turnblad (John Pinette), the role originated by drag star Divine in John Waters's movie of the same name, and more recently played brilliantly by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. In addition, several songs are hard to hear. Let's hope the show's difficulties are ironed out. Musicals with this much flavor demand to be fully savored.
THE INTELLIGENT DESIGN OF JENNY CHOW -- (At Studio Theatre through Aug 14)
This delightfully inventive play by Rolin Jones -- directed by David Muse with a zesty affinity for the writer's eccentric sensibility -- arrives as a bona fide summer surprise. Jones packs a dizzying array of ideas and insights and gimmicks into two hours, yet the evening succeeds because he carries it all off in such ferociously entertaining style. Eunice Wong plays Jennifer, a deeply troubled, obsessive-compulsive 22-year-old genius who is fixated on finding her Chinese birth mother. Since she's petrified of leaving her house, she builds Jenny Chow (Mia Whang), a surrogate Jennifer devoid of dysfunction, to take the journey to China in her place. It's a lot of exposition, but thanks in part to Muse's imaginative staging and the six swell actors, it's not nearly as dense as it sounds. It helps, too, that Jones anchors all the whimsy in the touching evocation of Jennifer's despair and that Wong is able to balance so sensitively the arrogant and desperate facets of Jennifer's nature.
LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN -- (At the Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday)
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 Sunday)
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.
SOMEWHERE IN THE PACIFIC -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Aug. 7)
If the hero of "Mister Roberts" didn't ask, didn't tell or just plain didn't know, playwright Neal Bell wants to pull the covers completely off the man-on-man groping in the shadows of gun turrets on the high seas at the end of the second World War. Though Bell's play is given a competent new staging as part of Olney's annual Potomac Theatre Festival, the work is rich neither in enlightenment nor dramatic detail. Once the playwright establishes the lusty entanglements among some of the shipmates -- and the virulent homophobia of some others -- he has nothing much in mind but killing them all off. Like war, love can be hell. The story weaves two primary threads, one concerning a gay sailor (Bill Army) who woos a married Marine (John Stokvis), the other involving a Captain Queeg-like commander (Paul Morella) who's lost his marbles over the suicide of his son, a serviceman. "Pacific's" mixture of sex and psychosis is murky rather than steamy -- and more than a little dreary. Director Jim Petosa keeps things moving, but the proceedings never acquire the crackling intensity that Bell's powder keg seems to promise.
TAKE ME OUT -- (At Studio Theatre through Aug. 14)
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.