BORN YESTERDAY -- (At Arena Stage through Nov. 6)
Set somewhere between fantasy and reality in postwar Washington, this is an agreeably mainstream political comedy that no doubt reveals more about the ways and means of Broadway than the workings of the nation's capital. Garson Kanin's play was a huge hit when it opened in New York in 1946. Something in the tale -- set in motion when a brutish junkyard magnate installs himself in a Washington hotel with bags of cash and a wily chorus girl, Billie Dawn -- clicked deeply with audiences eager to look past the hardships and insecurities of wartime. Director Kyle Donnelly picked the cast with care, especially in the selection of the adorable Suli Holum as Billie. Although this floozie doesn't know where the salad fork goes, she sure knows where her bread is buttered. With incisive contributions from Michael Bakkensen, as the magazine writer smitten by Billie, and Jonathan Fried, playing the simian junkman, Harry Brock, the play's pieces fall engagingly into place. And Donnelly smoothly manages to balance the comedy-with-a-conscience elements with the play's embrace of the lighter side of corruption. Arena clearly wants us to think about what's changed in Washington in six decades, and what hasn't. Billie Dawn may have gotten the best of her larcenous lover. But year in and year out, it seems, new Harry Brocks just keep on coming.
-- Peter Marks
HILDA -- (At Studio Theatre through Oct. 23)
Mrs. Lemarchand, the immaculately groomed crackpot of Marie Ndiaye's absurdist sketch, doesn't simply want a housekeeper. She wants to keep her housekeeper -- as in maid prison. She talks with an unsettling intensity about how much she loves the new maid, Hilda, the beleaguered cleaning lady in this portentous and pretentious new play by French novelist and playwright Ndiaye. In the program, Ndiaye says the play is about "the power of one human being over another human being." The point is made in the play's first 30 seconds, and then restated every 30 seconds or so for the next hour and a half. We never see Hilda, but we do get plenty of Mrs. Lemarchand (Ellen Karas) and the spotless home she maintains. Although the play has three characters -- Mrs. Lemarchand, Hilda's husband, Frank, and her sister, Corinne -- it is essentially Mrs. Lemarchand's monologue, a laundry list of complaints, demands, threats and, most of all, rationalizations about her need to live through and with Hilda. Were it not for Karas's weirdly fascinating, stylized and highly disciplined portrayal, the play might be insufferable. As it stands, the piece is merely tedious.
MORNING'S AT SEVEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Oct. 30)
Two grand old Victorian houses tower over the stage in this gentle 1939 play about the four aging, bickering Gibbs sisters and their kin. Set designer James Wolk fills the scene with realistic details ranging from leafy branches hanging overhead to Mason jars on the shelves inside. Less realistic, though, is the approach director John Going takes with some of his actors. As a result, you can be happily caught off guard with laughter or, on the other hand, left flat just when you expect to be moved. Comedy, however, isn't really the draw here; tenderness is. In Paul Osborn's well-balanced story, everyone's going a little nuts, making desperate grabs for companionship and meaning. A 40-year-old bachelor, Homer, is torn between marrying Myrtle and letting go of his mother Ida's apron strings. In the house next door, Ida's sisters Cora and Arry live with Cora's dapper husband, though Cora's anxious for Arry to move out. Across town, high-minded David Crampton has relegated Esty, his wife -- the fourth Gibbs sister -- to the second floor of their home. Her crime? Visiting her sisters and in-laws, whom he grandly labels "morons." The sisterly dynamic among these four actresses is persuasive, and the gents are solid, too. It's hard not to warm to Osborn's evergreen play, whose style occasionally recalls "Our Town." The emotional current doesn't run quite so deep here, but its mellow babble is fine.
-- Nelson Pressley
DRACULA -- (By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum, through Oct. 23)
When he declares, "I am Dra-kooo-laah!" Paata Tsikurishvili sounds as if he means it. A native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the actor and artistic director of Synetic Theatre speaks English with an exotic intonation -- and for once, it pays dividends. Many things about this new adaptation, in fact, work to the company's -- and the audience's -- advantage. Directed by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina, this version of the Bram Stoker classic is daring in its unvarnished treatment of the horror in the story. The script by Jonathan Leveck, a former company member, is the best Synetic has worked with in some time. Synetic has in mind neither romanticism nor kitsch in its portrayal of Dracula as a demon who goes passionately for the jugular. In Tsikurishvili's menacing, agile embodiment, he is the Dracula of melodrama, and the story is emphatically of the good-and-evil variety, of the havoc he wreaks and the efforts of God-fearing men to stop him.
KING LEAR -- (At Center Stage in Baltimore through Nov. 6)
It isn't only his remorseless daughters, Goneril and Regan, who want to cut King Lear down to size. Directors have a hankering these days for characters in Shakespeare who resemble the rest of us, in all our ordinariness. Ordinary is the operative word for this modern-dress "King Lear." In fact, dull would be more apt. Irene Lewis directs this production, in which the actors playing Lear, Edmund and Cordelia forge no urgent bonds with one another, resulting in an extra-dry rendition. Stephen Markle's Lear embodies none of the royal arrogance, or even the petulant need, that would explain his explosive anger at Cordelia, the daughter who fails to fawn when he offers her a slice of his kingdom. Heidi Armbruster's Cordelia has a warrior-like quality that leaves little room for soft, daughterly affection. And although Jon David Casey's Edmund is physically imposing, he spends more time giving the audience the fisheye than creating a compellingly dislikable blackguard.
LEADING LADIES -- (At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 23)
Like one of those flea market purveyors of mock antiques, Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig possesses an uncanny ability to make new things seem old. The latest case in point is "Leading Ladies," an undemanding, knee-jerk comedy making its regional debut. As staged by Mark Rucker, the production exhibits the mechanical efficiency of a well-staffed hotel, but the show presupposes so little sophistication by the audience that it turns the yuks into something cheaper than cheap. "Leading Ladies" follows the exploits of a pair of masculine-looking men (played by Ian Kahn and JD Cullum) who fool the seriously gullible inhabitants of York, Pa., into believing they're women. Hasn't this been done to death? If you've got it in you to chuckle yet again at guys in wigs and frilly get-ups, don't let me stand in your way. All others: You've been warned.
METAMORPHOSIS -- (By Catalyst Theatre at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through Saturday)
The spunky Catalyst crew might want to consider the fitness market for this wired, wearying revival. Owing primarily to a ceaselessly aerobic performance by Scott Fortier as a man who goes to bed a salesman and wakes up a bug, the production could be videotaped and sold to those who seek to exercise both body and mind. Fortier struts and sweats his hour upon the stage, bringing a bracing physicality to his rendition of Gregor Samsa, the doomed hero of this scathingly surreal classic about a young man's alienation. The problem for this high-strung production is that it pushes and pushes, and never stops to catch its breath.
A NUMBER -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)
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? 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." 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.
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.
PAPER MOON: REMEMBER HAROLD ARLEN -- (By the In Series at Source Theatre through Oct. 30)
A fair idea of the versatility and sheer genius of Harold Arlen can be had, by those who know vintage American song, just from the titles in the opening medley of this tribute to him. The songs, sung solo or in ensemble by a quartet, were "Blues in the Night," "I've Got the World on a String," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "That Old Black Magic" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Any one of them could win its composer a secure place in the annals; to have them poured out one after another is a breathtaking display of high-level musical productivity. And that is only the beginning. The show features 23 songs that explore the gamut of human emotions from wild euphoria to deep depression. There are a few novelties and many songs right from the heart, written in collaboration with outstanding lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin. The singers, accompanied by piano and percussion, have all had operatic experience, and it shows.
-- Joseph McLellan
PASSION PLAY, A CYCLE -- (At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Sunday)
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.
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.
THE TRIAL -- (By Scena Theatre at the Warehouse Theatre through Saturday)
The staging of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" commences with an unnerving image: an empty wooden chair starkly illuminated by bare bulbs that emphasize the prisonlike bleakness of the brick walls. The scene has a desolate quality that seems right for Kafka's nightmarish vision of a heartless, logic-free justice system. Unfortunately the chilling ambiance pretty much dissipates once the cast stalks onstage, with Joseph K (Christopher Henley) in the center and the ensemble stationed in an arc of surrounding chairs. As K's hideous adventure swings into motion, the actors participate ostentatiously in the evocation of the environment. They make odd noises to create the soundscape of a city, and they flail away at imaginary typewriters to suggest the bank where K works. They whisper the word "guilt" -- just in case you hadn't gotten the story's general drift. The ensemble's actions are so intrusive that they infuse scenes with unnecessary melodrama and goofiness.
-- Celia Wren
UPSHOT -- (By Forum Theatre & Dance at the Church Street Theater through Nov. 6)
Suppose you were the last person on Earth after a nuclear holocaust, free to do what you please, even to creep into the Oval Office. That's the vision teased out in the bold but exasperating new play by Israeli American writer Ami Dayan. Directed by Shirley Serotsky, "UpShot" launches with a stark image of Man (Jason Lott), a thoughtful fellow who, in the aftermath of cataclysm, indulges in games of Russian roulette. Lott flings himself into the role with such gusto that the narrative acquires a suspenseful urgency. All that end-of-humanity stuff, it turns out, is merely the brainchild of a cash-strapped playwright, John (Scott Graham), who neglects his supportive wife, Helen (Adrienne Nelson), and infant son. John soon finds himself facing his protagonist, Man. As the piece spirals off into meta realm, it pauses now and then for tiresome scenes of domestic wrangling. Admittedly, Graham and Nelson are likable and energetic. Still, by the end, the narrative feels so contrived it's hard to care.
URINETOWN -- (At Signature Theatre through Sunday)
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. 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.