THE BEARD OF AVON -- (By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo through Nov. 20)
To a question literary detectives love to chew on -- who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? -- the playwright Amy Freed offers a delightfully unscholarly answer: Everybody! After naive Will Shakspere (Grady Weatherford) leaves his wife for a theater troupe in London, a jaded earl (Eric Singdahlson) persuades Will to be his theatrical beard. Director Jessica Burgess and a well-drilled cast tackle their assignments with ravenous pleasure. Freed's comedy binds academic satire and lowbrow slapstick, and the sweet intimacy of Rorschach's staging serves the silly story.
-- Peter Marks
THE BEGINNING OF SUMMER -- (By Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer's Center in Bethesda through Nov. 20)
This is fevered Southern gothic at its drawling, hand-wringing worst, Horton Foote's middle play of a trilogy involving hard-shelled Mamie Borden. The first act is fueled by liquor and then the threat of bloodshed; it's crude and repetitive, and director Jack Sbarbori's cast isn't quite up to it. Everybody fares better in the second act, when dawn approaches and Foote's mellowing characters begin to work their way toward reconciliation.
-- Nelson Pressley
THE BODY PROJECT -- (By Horizons Theatre at the Warehouse Theater through Nov. 13)
This extremely well-intentioned but tedious piece of awareness-raising theatre, written and directed by Leslie Jacobson and Vanessa Thomas, incorporates interviews with local women and anecdotes featuring characters who have little personality beyond their situations. There's the aging actress; the bulimic; the overweight girl who's shunned by her peers; the overweight mother who's shunned by her daughter; and so on. Admittedly, if the show provokes useful public discussion about female self-consciousness, the effort of the creators will not have been in vain. But for a more artful take on the phenomenon, you could just open an issue of Glamour magazine.
-- Celia Wren
BRIGHT IDEAS -- (By Didactic Theatre Company at D.C. Arts Center through Nov. 13)
Eric Coble's gleeful black comedy revels in a vision of the nurturing instinct gone haywire with a romp through the saga of Genevra and Joshua Bradley (Kristy Powers and Leo Goodman), anxious parents of a 3-year-old boy, whom they are resolved to shower with every possible advantage. At the top of their list is enrolling little Mac in Bright Ideas preschool, but he's still stuck on the waiting list, so the fretting couple take matters into their own hands, with dire and downright Shakespearean results. Director Christopher Carroll has coaxed the Didactic production onto an enjoyably hyperbolic track, maximizing Coble's wicked lampooning of the parenting industry. -- C.W.
BUILDING A BOAT -- (By Charter Theatre at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts through Nov. 6)
This play has enough melodrama for several lifetimes. Hugh (Kevin Adams) is a damaged, solitary sort who is hoping he'll find some catharsis in building a small sailboat. He's kept company by Conn (Michael Skinner), an increasingly irritating character who, it's murkily suggested, only exists in Hugh's head. The play is more successful when it flashes back to happier times, when Hugh was still married to Deirdre (Hope Lambert). The most compelling scenes here, however, are between Hugh and his son, Michael (Denman Anderson). As the play's end draws nearer, its initial long-windedness and grab bag of issues get streamlined into a strong family drama, but not enough to save the unevenness of the work.
-- Tricia Olszewski
DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN -- (At Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre through Nov. 27)
Comedian Rob Becker made a killing by sharply packaging shopworn observations in the 1990s as his one-man show toured the country and then became the longest-running solo show in Broadway history. Becker's stage persona was pretty irresistible; he melded stereotypes and archetypes in a way that captured the country's fascination with pop psychology. A number of actors have assumed Becker's role in touring productions; Kevin Burke is the new star of this one. Some of the material remains sure-fire, and Becker's explorations are not without droll insights.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- (At Folger Theatre through Nov. 27)
Director Nick Hutchinson's World War II-era makeover of Shakespeare's eternally delicious battle of the sexes -- with big band sounds and khaki uniforms -- is atmospheric if pedestrian, retaining the bard's rhyme and meter and leaving the rest to props and wardrobe. Aside from Kate Eastwood Norris's graceful and accomplished Beatrice and Jim Zidar's deadpan Dogberry, the cast is sorely tested by the play. Norris's Beatrice, an English rose, has her eye on Yankee officer Benedick (P.J. Sosko), but both are too proud to make the first move. Meanwhile, the malicious Don John (Jim Jorgensen) is determined to wreck the nuptials of Claudio (Dean Alai) to Hero (Tiffany Fillmore). Newcomers to Shakespeare may be those most charmed by the you-pick-the-period approach to his work.
BORN YESTERDAY -- (At Arena Stage through Nov. 6)
Set somewhere between fantasy and reality in postwar Washington, Garson Kanin's agreeably mainstream political comedy is set in motion when a brutish junkyard magnate named Harry Brock (Jonathan Fried) installs himself in a Washington hotel with bags of cash and a wily chorus girl, Billie Dawn (Suli Holum). Director Kyle 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.
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, the play has a loopy, collegiate air. 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.
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.
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.
MORNING'S AT SEVEN -- (At Olney Theatre Center through Sunday)
Two grand old Victorian houses tower over the stage in this gentle 1939 play about the four aging, bickering Gibbs sisters and their kin. In Paul Osborn's well-balanced story, directed here by John Going, 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.
OTHELLO -- (By Shakespeare Theatre Company through Sunday)
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 Sunday)
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
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
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.
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.
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.