Mini Reviews

Opening

THE CHAIRS -- (At Round House Theatre Silver Spring through Nov. 6)

The clutter in this limply antic revival of Eugene Ionesco's play is not simply a function of the wall of furniture that towers over the stage. The whole enterprise is overstuffed with shtick: silly accents, clownish gestures, breathless racing to and fro. The pair of actors who ham their way through much of the production brush only the surface of the classic absurdist comedy, about the desperate hollowness of life and the rituals we poignantly devise to fill it. As imagined by Alain Timar, a director from Avignon, France, the play has a loopy, collegiate air. Ionesco, a cousin in modernist spirit to Samuel Beckett, labeled the play a tragic farce, but in Timar's conjuring, you're provided only a pale sort of jokeyness. The characters are supposed to be ancient, but Timar casts youthful Marcus Kyd and Jessica Browne-White as the eternally married couple who have devised a grand evening for the visit of an invited speaker. We see only the dozens and dozens of chairs they haul out as the evening progresses. The husband and wife, however, are deeply occupied in small talk and fawning over their invisible guests, dignitaries who have come to listen to the speaker's edifying pearls. Timar's three-dimensional backdrop, a vast wall of every sort of chair you can think of, is inspired, but the props never amount to much more than an assortment of vacant seats.

-- Peter Marks

FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN -- (At MetroStage through Nov. 27)

The usual rule is that when a son writes a play about his mother, she should look out. But Canadian writer Michel Tremblay goes against convention in the mannerly and sentimental two-character play. It's an adoring memoir, and Tremblay's affection is so complete that he gives his mother the stage in every conceivable way. Tremblay keeps himself -- the narrator, that is -- well out of the way, at least until Tremblay unveils his nifty little coup de theatre at the end. Bruce M. Holmes plays the son, and for almost the entire 90 minutes he sits on one side of the stage and listens as Catherine Flye chatters and scolds and dominates conversations as only an iron-willed mother can. Tremblay writes about the narrator/son in his formative years, as he grows from a teenager old enough to talk back a little to a young man old enough to be out on his own. Flye's a hoot, full of righteous criticism and vivid detail. The best part of "For the Pleasure" is the sly revelation of what this relationship led to: the subtle exchange of cynical critical distance for openhearted, wide-ranging imagination. It's a sweet family portrait.

-- Nelson Pressley

PSYCHIC GHOST THEATRE -- (At Psychic Ghost Theatre through Nov. 26)

In the converted space of a building in Wheaton where a Gypsy fortune teller once plied her cons, the Psychic Ghost Theatre has materialized. There, Barry Taylor and partner Susan Kang levitate, float glasses and dice, pull a scarf through a pole, make a pigeon turn into confetti -- all within 15 feet of the audience. (Note that no one younger than 18 is admitted.) The opportunity to see magic done this close is a luxury. Psychic Ghost Theatre's show is in three parts. The first is a more or less straightforward exhibition of conjuring. The second is the re-creation of a 19th-century "spirit cabinet." The third is a seance, complete with Ouija board and maleficent spirit. Close as you're sitting, you can't catch any of the tricks. It all looks like . . . well, like magic.

-- Lloyd Rose

YOU ARE HERE -- (By Theatre Alliance at H Street Playhouse through Nov. 13)

Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor has a flair for characterization and an ear for the comic idiosyncrasies of modern speech, and his ungainly novelistic canvas teems with chatty, wayward personalities. The play's mercurial protagonist is Alison, who MacIvor surrounds with a spectrum of lovers and colleagues and quirky incidental characters such as an expletive-prone gigolo and an arrogant publishing Brahmin. The interactions of this motley crew can be poignant and hilarious when matched with the kind of knockout acting in this American premiere production. Setting the tone is Jennifer Mendenhall's virtuoso rendition of Alison, a vulnerable journalist with wild mood swings. And that's no easy task, since the play's central conceit -- Alison remembering her life -- calls for numerous monologues to be self-consciously delivered directly to the audience, which Mendenhal suffuses with humor and urgency while making her character persuasively complex. It's colorful stuff, and, under Gregg Henry's direction, the performances are delectable, but one can't help feeling that, overall, "You Are Here" amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

-- Celia Wren

Continuing

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.

-- P.M.

DRACULA -- (By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum, through Sunday)

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.

-- P.M.

HILDA -- (At Studio Theatre through Sunday)

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.

-- P.M.

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.

-- P.M.

LEADING LADIES -- (At Ford's Theatre through Sunday)

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.

-- P.M.

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.

-- N.P.

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.

-- P.M.

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

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.

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.

-- C.W.