Mini Reviews A star (*) denotes a show recommended by our critics. OpeningTHE CONSTANT WIFE(At Olney Theatre Center through March 11)

In James Wolk's illuminated drawing room for W. Somerset Maugham's 1926 comedy, the decor is as tasteful, spotless and modern as the streamlined thinking of Constance Middleton, the unflappable spouse of the title. Given the period, Wolk and director John Going could have saturated the household with chintz and bric-a-brac, yet that wouldn't be Constance, who, as embodied by Julie-Ann Elliott, is a model of efficiency and discretion but never convention. And the conventions of marriage are very much under review: Seems everyone but Constance knows that her husband is having an affair -- and worse, he's carrying on with Constance's best friend, Marie-Louise (Ashley West). Constance's sister, Martha (Allyson Currin), thinks Constance should know. To tell, or not to tell? As the merits are parsed, Maugham warms up the audience for the twists. Bucking theatrical trends, Going and company don't belabor the obvious and don't trap Constance amid overplayed dolts, nor do they create an arid/stifling atmosphere for their heroine to bravely escape. Instead, they manage the affair as Constance would: with a muted but impeccable sense of style.

-- Nelson PressleySHAKESPEARE'S RAPE OF LUCRECE(By Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse through March 11)

Mounting one of Shakespeare's narrative poems takes a bit of nerve, and local playwright Callie Kimball's adaptation of this lesser-read text deals with a subject that makes your typical audience member extremely uncomfortable. Kimball and director Sarah Denhardt cannily exploit the discomfort factor in this ambitious and thought-provoking, if not wholly successful, production. As the toga-draped action courses remorselessly toward the central act of violence -- culminating in a wrenching scene of darkness, torn by screams -- it raises feminist arguments about the exploitation of women by men. The poem recounts how, in ancient Rome, an arrogant prince named Tarquin violated Lucrece, the virtuous wife of his fellow soldier Collatinus. Convinced that she was irrevocably tainted, Lucrece committed suicide, prompting one of Collatinus's relatives to lead a rebellion against Tarquin's tyrannical father -- an act that eventually led to the founding of the Roman Republic. Lucrece's suffering, in other words, paved the way for political change -- a tale disturbing and resonant in our modern world. No one would call Kimball's "Lucrece" flawless, but it's bold and provocative -- and it's certainly a change from Shakespeare's usual suspects.

-- Celia Wren Continuing* BRICKTOP(At MetroStage through Sunday)

If People magazine had been around in the 1920s, it surely would have fawned over the life and lifestyle of Ada "Bricktop" Smith. This American entertainer and society hostess ran a Paris nightclub that attracted the international glitterati, from writers to royalty. Four decades after the club was shuttered, Smith's fame has dimmed, but MetroStage restores her life to the spotlight with the premiere of this infectious, if somewhat scattered, cabaret. Conceived by Calvin A. Ramsey and co-written with director Thomas W. Jones II, the high-energy piece weaves Smith's rich biography around songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and other greats, supplemented with a few original numbers by S. Renee Clark. As Smith, Peggy Ann Blow leads a cast of top-drawer singer-dancers, and the five-piece jazz band's sounds hav e the effervescence of good champagne.

-- C.W.THE COLLECTION and THE LOVER(At Rep Stage through Sunday)

In this Harold Pinter double bill directed by Xerxes Mehta, "The Collection," a generally entertaining production, is aggressively acted and designed in snappy, eye-catching blacks and whites by Elena Zlotescu. But pitch is everything in Pinter, where the vibrations between the lines can rattle as noisily as the grenade-like remarks themselves. And here, too often, sheer volume is allowed to stand in for danger. Not that the two well-off couples in "The Collection" lack reasons to shout thanks to suspected infidelity. In "The Lover," actors Nigel Reed and Marni Penning are expert at the role-playing of a twisted marriage, but the play itself isn't as sharp. Again, assumed infidelity is the springboard; husband and wife candidly agree that she's in the habit of taking an afternoon lover, but they both know it's really him in some sort of disguise. Such fun, until it disgusts him, and then a marital negotiation begins, playing out through layers of their established pretending. In this uneven yet alluring show, there's always something to hold on to.

-- N.P.CRAVE(At Signature Theatre through April 1)

In this black mood of a performance piece, the language spills out in a shapeless litany as a quartet of barefoot actors, occupying a box filled with sand that glistens in the light, recites the sort of words one speaks in moments of panic, anguish and, most of all, abject psychic surrender. The resourceful director, Jeremy Skidmore, devises a vibrant mise-en-scene, and actors John Lescault, Joe Isenberg, Kathleen Coons and Deborah Hazlett are well-drilled. The play's context casts a pall over "Crave" and simultaneously confers on the audience some discomfiting sense of the voyeur: Writer and performance artist Sarah Kane burst on the London theater scene in the mid-1990s, wrote "Crave" in 1998 and hanged herself the next year, at age 28. It's as if you're hearing parts of a suicide note read aloud. Yet despite the torrent of verbiage and the technical agility of the reciters, you feel as if you've run into a wall rather than a play.

-- Peter Marks* GEM OF THE OCEAN(At Arena Stage through March 18)

This is the narrative starting point for August Wilson's sprawling chronicle of black America in the 20th century. Aunt Ester (Lynnie Godfrey), a local mystic purported to be nearly 300 years old, has been through the stark horrors of the slave ships to the harsh realities following Emancipation. Now, in 1904, her house is a refuge as well as a portal, through which others who come into her orbit gain wisdom and strength. The play's linchpin characters are Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell), who escaped bondage and helped other former slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad, and Citizen Barlow (Jimonn Cole), a young man who has fled his native Alabama, whose guilt over a desperate act of petty thievery brings him to Aunt Ester's door and prompts an epiphanic journey to the heart of his people's suffering. While the drama is a lesser achievement amid the more extraordinary wor ks in Wilson's 10-play cycle, British director Paulette Randall and her cast are lovely instruments for Wilson's music.


(At Signature Theatre through Sunday)

The company's stylish, spacious new main stage is being christened with a solidly entertaining revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's mischievous musical re-stringing of the stories of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The work, a witty exploration of that hopeful yet dangerous verb "to wish," resonates with a theater heading down uncharted paths. Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer's production is a pleasing portal to possibility, to whatever else might be waiting down the road of his new magic kingdom.

-- P.M.JUNEBUG AND THE REVEREND(At Imagination Stage through March 25)

This somewhat-inert play, adapted from Alice Mead's children's book and directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, lacks the energy and the sense of constant revelation that often distinguish the company's shows for young audiences. Among Junebug's sobering problems, he recently has moved; there are bullies in his new fourth-grade class; and, most distressing, his father is in jail and his mother has a new boyfriend. Stephen Thomas, as the protagonist, doesn't make the glum dawdler seem dramatically compelling, though Jefferson A. Russell (as the Reverend) has fine-tuned some churlish mannerisms for the elderly curmudgeon who eventually wins Junebug's trust and affection. It's Fatima Quander, though, who really perks up the production in her brief, funny scenes as Ms. Williams, a tai-chi-practicing retiree who gives Junebug a few pointers on dealing with bullies, and life.

-- C.W.KING LEAR(At Folger Theatre through Sunday)

In this production of Shakespeare's plaintive moan of a tragedy, there is an intriguing, ironic twist that signals a provocative intellect guiding a taut and accessible, though dry-eyed, treatment. You come away from the production, staged by director Alfred Preisser and the Classical Theatre of Harlem, with some stimulating insights, yet it ultimately makes for an evening devoid of powerful feeling. That is disappointing, for no ending in Shakespeare is more pitiable than that of Lear bearing his dead daughter in his arms, cognizant at last of the wreck he has made of everything. Preisser's cast, led by Andre De Shields's le an and graceful Lear, cleanly sketches the fault lines in this benighted royal family. Still, the longer we follow Lear's descent into crazed despondency, the more detached we feel from the play's pathos.


(By Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum through Sunday)

Synetic Theater is experiencing its finest h our (and a half) with a fiercely athletic adaptation that puts the company's dynamic style on exhilarating display. Synetic founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili locate a world all their own in this oft-performed Shakespearean tragedy. They and their expertly drilled cadre of actor-dancers provide an aptly bleak and fluid universe for the terrifying events the Macbeths set in motion. Macbeth is a man of pure action, egged on in his gory ambition by a wife captive to vengeful domination fantasies. In this wordless take, Shakespeare's tragedy is all carnage, committed in flurries of daggers and hails of bullets.

-- P.M.* ORSON'S SHADOW (At Round House Theatre through Sunday)

Orson Welles's foil in this immensely enjoyable backstage comedy is another titan of self-regard, Sir Laurence Olivier. Self-pitying rants, childish tantrums and parallel displays of paranoia don't exactly make them the most sympathetic figures you'll ever encounter on a stage, but they sure are fun. Veteran actor Austin Pendleton turns playwright for this peek through the keyhole at an actual event: a 1960 London production of the absurdist comedy "Rhinoceros" that Welles (Wilbur Edwin Henry) was hired to direct and Olivier (Anthony Newfield) starred in with Joan Plowright (Connan Morrissey). To many delightful degrees, the crackerjack casting in Jerry Whiddon's sterling production does the job. This is an elevating, smartly entertaining glimpse at the extraordinary foibles of extraordinary men.

-- P.M.LAS PAREDES (THE WALLS)(At GALA Hispanic Theatre through Sunday)

Attention all claustrophobes: Steer clear of Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro's grim political parable, which serves up a standard-issue, quasi-absurdist vision of totalitarianism. It pivots on an image sure to give you the heebie-jeebies: a bedroom -- or is it a prison cell? -- with walls that gradually contract, crushing the terrified occupant, a young man (Carlos Castillo) who finds himself incarcerated, for reasons that are never clear, in a building echoing with screams. Tending and tormenting him are two eccentric civil servants, played by Cynthia Benjamin and Manuel Cabrera-Santos, who whittle away at their victim's psyche. The duo's talk of policy and national security, and the ominous references to doings elsewhere in the building, evoke the unnamed country's despotic political regime. Director Gabriel García and set designer Guillermo de la Torre capably dole out menacing atmospherics while preserving the emphasis on the banality of evil. Ultimately, though, neither the director and designers nor the three persuasive performers make "The Walls" stand out from other works with similar themes.

-- C.W.* THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD(At Studio Theatre through March 11)

The fabulousness of Lypsinka has been established so definitively that it could be cited in case law. This alter ego of John Epperson is the glamorous vessel for the spirits (and recorded voices) of assorted movie dames from the era when real women -- voracious, larger-than-life sirens, drama queens and goddesses -- roamed the big screen. Lypsinka is back with a new show and a divine preoccupation with Joan Crawford. The show is not exactly what you are expecting from Lypsinka, whose trademark is a marvelous gift for the gestures, expressions and mannerisms of the legends she portrays. (You never hear Lypsinka's own voice, of course; she lip-syncs it all.) What Lypsinka seems to have in mind here is risky: an exploration of the image-conscious calculations of a quirky film star, and the gap between what she imagines she's conveying about herself and what we perceive about her. The bulk of the production, solidly staged by Kevin Malony, re-creates a 1973 interview that John Springer conducted with Crawford at Town Hall in New York. What's fascinating in Epperson's portrayal is the sense of the tightly controlled performance that Crawford is giving.

-- P.M.* RICHARD III(At Shakespeare Theatre Company through March 18)

W ho wouldn't be repulsed by the Richard of Michael Kahn's "Richard III"? With disfigured foot, pronounced hump and a facial scar, Geraint Wyn Davies's Richard is so creepy one wouldn't necessarily have to be informed of inner ugliness to sense a deformed soul. Shakespeare's idea of a realm being compelled to bend to the treacherous will of one so physically ill-equipped for public life is reinforced again and again in Kahn's uncommonly intelligent, sure-handed staging. Even the tilted stage of set designer Lee Savage seems based on a world skewing in favor of Richard's perfidy. The production is lucid, beautifully articulated and intriguingly staged, with battle scenes of premium caliber. The play is long, and there are times when the meticulous unraveling of Richard's murderous schemes becomes a bit laborious, but few productions are as good at unfolding of the plot and delineating the multitude of characters.

-- P.M.ROUGH MAGIC(By Rorschach Theatre at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church through Saturday)

When a vengeful fictional character steps out of the pages of Shakespeare and into Manhattan threatening death and destruction, only dramaturg Melanie Porter (the deadpan Tracy Lynn Olivera) can save the day. The hero of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's frisky, eventually frazzled play can not only analyze and research a text, she can transport characters out of scripts and into real life. The playwright hijacks characters from "The Tempest" -- including Prospero in pursuit of Caliban, who has stolen his magic book -- and aligning an offbeat coalition of unlikely heroes for an epic battle. The play works best when making knowing fun of this goofiness, and so does Jenny McConnell Frederick's low-budget production. A number of the inside jokes are delicious, but the rabbits that keep popping out of Aguirre-Sacasa's hat lack a certain hoped-for magic.

-- N.P.* THE SMALL THINGS(By Solas Nua at Flashpoint through Sunday)

This queerly lyrical play is about the balm of language, a work that dwells on acute detail and soothing words. Yet in this production, a great deal of meaning is suggested by one image: the half-demented look on Chris Davenport's bearded face. Davenport plays a character known simply as Man, and although his voice is prim and his demeanor suggests a harmless bachelor uncle, the shell-shocked glint in his eye guarantees that something's amiss. Also hinting at that is his physical isolation from Woman (Kate Debelack), the only other character in Enda Walsh's terse little horror tale. The pair swap increasingly disturbing monologues, and it gradually becomes clear that they're avoiding coming to the point. Nevertheless, Kathleen Akerley creates a visually beautiful production that is unerringly tasteful -- a finely calibrated rendering of words flying out of nothingness and back into nothingness, not powerfully, but with peculiar sentimental wonder.

-- N.P. * VIGILS(At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through March 4)

In Noah Haidle's charmingly life-affirming play, Naomi Jacobson portrays a woman who refuses to let her husband go. The complication is that he's dead. Her need to keep him close is so all-consuming that the afterlife proves no obstacle. At the instant of his departing this world, she shanghais his soul, takes it back to her apartment and stashes it in her hope chest. Thusly do Widow and Soul cohabit in Haidle's sweetly addled tale, acted with comic relish in this appealing incarnation. Colette Searls's pleasing treatment strikes just the right note of absurdity while addressing the play's poignant dimension, which grows out of the intensity of the Widow's struggle to hold onto the connection. The play is a generous take on human frailty, particularly as it unravels the Widow's grudging efforts to wean herself off the Soul.

-- P.M. WE ARE NOT THESE HANDS(By Catalyst Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop through March 3)

There is a swaggering eccentricity in Sheila Callaghan's script in which the Third World girls -- Moth and Belly (Regina Aquino and Casie Platt) -- become mesmerized by the icky wonders of the Internet. The coin-fed computers, which are in some clapped-together cafe, show the worst kind of smut -- some of which can be glimpsed on the ancient but functional monitors (no laptops or flat-screens) strewn about the seedy set of Shirley Serotsky's production. We are in the trash room of the world's economy -- a potentially rich setting that Callaghan raids for atmosphere but cannot plunder for meaning or even a compelling story. The girls want out. But where these waifs are, where they'll go and what drives their pathetic situation are all maddeningly vague. The undercooked play settles for a bargain-basement "Mad Max" vibe.

-- N.P.