AFTER ASHLEY -- (At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Oct. 9)
The big, bad media traffic in tragedy. One day, your personal horror story is a source of private anguish; the next day, you're babbling to Nancy Grace. The literary agents come knocking and -- oh, you'd heard? So where does that leave a ticketholder for this Gina Gionfriddo comedy about the big, bad media? Holding a ticket to a run-of-the-mill satire. With the exception of a fine central performance by young Mark Sullivan, this production packs all the oomph of last month's news. Gionfriddo gets off a fusillade of decent one-liners, but director Lee Mikeska Gardner's staging is off. The tone of hysteria established in the first scene sets the comedy on a ludicrous course, and you're asked to identify with characters who aren't believable. After his mother, Ashley (Marni Penning), is raped and murdered in their basement, Sullivan's Justin Hammond has his grieving interrupted by adults who want to cash in on the attendant sympathy. His father, Alden (Bruce Nelson), a Washington Post reporter, has the questionable inspiration of writing a book about his wife, in which he whitewashes her drug and emotional problems. If outrage at the idea of merchandising grief strikes a chord, the emotional underpinnings of "After Ashley" seem overly synthetic. Ashley is portrayed as terminally immature, burdening her son with her marital complaints and leaving no room for sympathy for her -- or Justin's loss. Paul Morella is aptly oily as a rancid talk-show host. But Nelson conveys an oddly distracted air as Justin's dad. The magnetic Sullivan, though, reveals a true knack for comedy. You're happy to see him long after you've had enough of "After Ashley."
-- Peter Marks
THE DISPUTATION -- (By Theater J at DCJCC's Goldman Theater through Oct. 2)
Anyone feeling residual guilt over Sunday school lessons skipped long ago might consider the makeup class masquerading as a play these days at Theater J. But only if the guilt is really, really, really getting to you. Otherwise, you'd be advised not to subject yourself to "The Disputation," a gassy-stuffy costume drama in which solemn characters debate the status of the Messiah and whether Jews have the right to practice their religion. The play was written by Hyam Maccoby, a British professor who died last year, and his creaky approach to illustrating history suggests a well-informed amateur playwright at sea in any forum outside academia. The production has one unlikely thing going for it: the presence of renowned actor-entertainer Theodore Bikel, a hale and handsome octogenarian clearly relishing his role as a rabbi in the Barcelona of 1263 who is called on to defend his people against a fired-up Catholic Church. Director Nick Olcott surrounds Bikel with an impressive array of local talent, including Edward Gero, Naomi Jacobson and Andrew Long. But none of these actors transcends the limited material they're apportioned.
IT HAD TO BE YOU -- (By American Century Theater at Gunston Arts Center through Oct. 8)
If you're going to be held hostage after a first date, it might as well be by Theda Blau, the wacky platinum-blonde who is the heroine of American Century Theater's season opener. A Bronx-bred vegan who says things like "The moment I met you, my crystals glowed," Theda has appeared in "Brides of the Werewolves" and other seminal movies and is cheerily sweating over her next project: writing a six-act epic about a Russian aristocrat who gets crucified upside down. In other words, she has nothing in common with a suave, wealthy director-producer named Vito Pignoli -- with the result that the two meet cute one Christmas Eve and wind up bantering in Theda's apartment, where she hides his clothes. The path of true love never did run smooth, and it sure doesn't in this two-hour antic, which husband-and-wife showbiz team Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor based loosely on their own romance. The amusing trifle is rendered all the more entertaining by Karen Jadlos Shotts as Theda, part aging bombshell, part brassy dragon lady, part lovable waif. Shotts lends authenticity to the character's daffy actions, such as producing a full roll of toilet paper from her handbag in lieu of Kleenex. Playing the straight man, Mark Adams has more or less the same appalled, baffled gaze for most of the production. But then he's not helped by some of the creakier plot twists that revolve around his character: a personal confession Vito trots out at one point might as well be flagged in neon: "Crucial Turning Point Here." While not imbuing Vito with subtlety, Adams helps keep the zaniness clocking along under Ellen Dempsey's good-humored direction.
-- Celia Wren
A NUMBER -- (At Studio Theatre through Oct. 16)
Here's a dilemma Miss Manners has yet to address: If you were invited to the wedding of your clone, would you be entitled to a seat with the relatives? And what of the thorny question of a patent? How do you broach with your father the delicate topic of whether you were the prototype -- or just one of the knockoffs? We turn for guidance on this occasion to Caryl Churchill, who ponders in barbed and spooky fashion the wild issue of assembly-line identity in "A Number." In this hour-long play, director Joy Zinoman dips rewardingly into the wellspring of emotional truth in one of Churchill's harsh, Pinteresque works. Zinoman has found a marvelously simpatico pair of actors, Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, who play the parent and his multiple children in a drama that is as much about the fragile bonds between fathers and sons as it is about the creation by science of ethically challenging relationships. Story has a breakout turn -- make that turns -- in his portrayal of the troubled offspring of a man who, for contemptible reasons that only slowly come into focus, has turned to the petri dish for solace and companionship. He assumes the distinct personas and attitudes -- bereft, irate, indifferent -- for each of the sons. In Van Griethuysen's sly performance as the father is the sense of a vulnerable being whose better instincts are competing with the baser ones.
PASSION PLAY, A CYCLE -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Oct. 16)
This startlingly original play qualifies as the benchmark of the new season. Sarah Ruhl's fluid trilogy chronicling the evolving linkage of belief, morality and politics feels like a ride through the rapids: brisk, daring, at times a bit muddy. But it confirms the emergence of a fresh and provocative voice that the theater desperately needs. Wait: Brisk, you say? The surprising fact is, this 3-hour 40-minute production -- which follows the staging of Passion plays in three politically charged eras -- does not wear an audience out. The credit goes not only to Ruhl's poetically evocative prose and a cascade of scenes moving lickety-split from one to the next, but also to the ability of director Molly Smith to put Ruhl's symbolism and images to effective use. The title is in a sense misleading: Of central importance here are not so much the Passion plays themselves, and the fixed tenets they embody, as the more complex, morally ambiguous worlds in which the plays are performed. The first play-within-a-play is put on by townspeople in the north of England during the virulently anti-Catholic reign of Elizabeth I; the second by a renowned company in Germany in the early 1930s, as Hitler is coming to power. The third is staged in Spearfish, S.D., during and after the Vietnam War. While the 12 cast members assume different identities in each portion of the evening, they continue in the same roles in each of the Passion plays. The ensemble for the most part acquits itself well, but the evening is first and foremost Ruhl's coming-out party.
GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE -- (By Theater Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Sunday )
For all its canny craftsmanship, this piece cannot adequately address the sad riddle at its heart: Why did Wilde so vigorously embark on a legal course that would lead to his own ruin? Jeremy Skidmore's very fine staging of Moises Kaufman's innovative 1997 courtroom drama offers no substantive new clues to the puzzle. But his production suffuses the play-by-play of the celebrated case with a fervent theatricality. If Wilde's motives remain a mystery, in accusing the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, of libeling him as a "sodomite," an audience gets to see in ever sharper relief what kind of world Wilde was up against. Concerning itself with an artist who came to care more for beauty than popular validation, the play is a reminder of the myriad forms in which a dissenting voice can speak. And out of the mouths of Skidmore's youthful cast, "Gross Indecency" does indeed reinvigorate the words spoken and written by Wilde and others more than a century ago. With three trials to get through, the play can be quite a squirmy experience. Skidmore, fortunately, has an eye for spectacle, and, aided greatly by lighting designer Andrew E. Cissna, he finds all sorts of intriguing ways to dramatize the trials. "Gross Indecency" does not have to crack open Wilde's psyche to make us feel deeply for him. At the play's conclusion, there's one final tidbit from the writer's marvelous work, recited to us in total darkness. It's a moving indication of how well Skidmore's sensibility meshes with Kaufman's handiwork. Offered to us as history, it plays like tragedy.
OTHELLO -- (By Shakespeare Theatre Company through Oct. 30)
Patrick Page is nothing if not resourceful, and what the actor cooks up for his final exit in Michael Kahn's unadorned new "Othello" tells you heaps about his scabrous Iago. The bodies of Desdemona and Othello lie together in bed; the body of Iago's wife is splayed on the floor beside them. As guards lead him out of the bedchamber, Page's Iago can't take his eyes off his victims. The gaze is carnal, reflective of some indecent appetite. A small, arresting moment such as this attests to the intelligence guiding the production. In this faithful, straightforward rendition, Kahn offers unfettered access to actors and text. This is not a paucity of imagination, but a veteran director's way of paying respect. The result is an "Othello" at all times engrossing, and yet ultimately less than devastating. It's hard to say whether the muted impact is Kahn's responsibility or Shakespeare's. Even if the sorrows of "Othello" do not play out here in pounding waves, satisfying ripples remain in the unmasking of affable Iago, betrayed by the wife he has all but discarded. The face of evil is, it seems, all the more startling when it looks like the guy next door.
THE SAND STORM: STORIES FROM THE FRONT -- (By MetroStage through Sept. 25)
In former Marine Sean Huze's earnest piece of reportage with theatrical aspirations, the geography is less the violence-racked Middle East than the treacherous reaches of the human psyche. In 10 monologues over the course of 70 minutes, Huze's servicemen relate disturbing anecdotes set during the current Iraq conflict. But the narratives' shock value draws less on the gory detail than on the insight of the characters: With a certain predictability, each harrowing event leads the GI to acknowledge the limits of his compassion -- and the lengths of his callousness. Unfortunately the power of the work is somewhat undermined by the baldness of the presentation, as Huze prods the characters into the spotlight to update the age-old truth that war is hell. Further handicapping Huze's good intentions, not all of the actors are able to ground the monologues in a convincing personality, so as to make them seem less jerry-built. Director Brett Smock channels the production starkly, introducing the servicemen in a particularly effective light-and-shadows tableau right at the start. But the aesthetic touches don't gussy up the bleakness of the message: In the brooding words of Cpl. Rodriguez, "Maybe some of us are walking dead, soulless shells of the men we once were." You can't get much more blunt than that.
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.
URINETOWN -- (At Signature Theatre through Oct. 16)
Can a boy whose career is in the toilet and a girl whose father controls the instruments of personal hygiene find love in a city where you have to pay every time you, um, go? This is the musical question echoing throughout the sublimely zany canyons of a show that gives a whole new connotation to comic relief. This self-consciously silly musical proves to be a natural for Signature and a merry band of players. An ecological disaster has drained the water table and forced authorities to regulate urination. The public urinals are now controlled by a corrupt corporation run by Hope's father, Caldwell B. Cladwell. When Cladwell raises the urinal fees, Bobby leads a rebellion of the poor against the rich. Director Joe Calarco, like the actors, is energized by the freewheeling opportunity to send up the conventions of old Broadway. So many of the hands responsible for the production are in top form that the musical's more trying aspects -- manic campiness has its limits -- seem mere hiccups. Karma Camp's choreography, for instance, is inventive and inspired, and Anne Kennedy's wigs and costumes are a full-scale riot. The cast rises ebulliently to the challenge of sustaining the caricature-driven insanity. Will Gartshore, playing Bobby Strong, delivers a star-caliber performance, and when matched with Erin Driscoll's Hope Cladwell, it's double delight. All contribute to the evening's polish and the feeling of well being that comes when a production is, pardon the expression, flush with talent.