Theater critic

Susan Marie Rhea and Brandon McCoy in “Outside Mullingar” at the Keegan Theatre. (Cameron Whitman)

During Washington theater’s wild adolescence in the 1970s and 1980s, two essential hangouts were Source Theater on 14th Street NW and the Church Street Theater near Dupont Circle. These rough-and-ready stages have been remodeled in recent years and comfortably settled by two of the city’s most popular small companies, both of which are looking sharp right now.

Constellation Theatre Company is marking its 10th season as one of the constituent troupes at Source (saved from commercial redevelopment in 2006) with a handsome remounting of its inaugural show, Mary Zimmerman’s fanciful “The Arabian Nights.” The Church Street Theater has been at the Keegan Theatre for several years now — the troupe, now in its 20th season, bought the 1905 structure in 2013 — and the eclectic company’s Irish roots are appealingly framed in the John Patrick Shanley comedy “Outside Mullingar.”

Keegan is an intriguing case, dancing as fast as it can to make ends meet. It’s the rare small troupe that owns a theater, so productions hustle on stage one after another year-round. The eight-show season includes Irish works, mainstream plays by U.S. writers such as Wendy Wasserstein (“An American Daughter”) and Theresa Rebeck (“What We’re Up Against”), plus big musicals. Keegan’s “American Idiot” and “Next to Normal” have a combined 13 nominations in contention for Monday’s Helen Hayes Awards, and next season the troupe will mount its own staging of “Chicago.”

Hits and misses are inevitable at that rate — Keegan thinks seriously about how to capitalize on hits when locked into conventionally planned seasons — but the audience is healthy. Like Constellation, which uses the Source stage for three shows a year (Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party,” Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” next season), Keegan’s houses are 90 percent full.

The current “Outside Mullingar” is a particularly sweet piece of writing, a pugnacious romance in Shanley’s “Moonstruck” and “Savage in Limbo” mode. The play’s four characters have an easy poetry and explosive humor that are nicely teased out in Artistic Director Mark Rhea’s calm production. Kevin Adams is Tony, a cantankerous old man who might not leave his farm to his moody son Anthony, a 40ish man played with a hangdog mope by lanky Brandon McCoy. Rena Cherry Brown tartly plays a widow whose daughter Rosemary (Susan Marie Rhea, neatly alternating currents of thoughtfulness and sheer force) is the rural Irish county’s enigma: lovely, strong, and willfully alone.

The acting is schmaltz-free and very funny, cresting to a long, entertaining final scene between McCoy’s blissfully weird Anthony and Rhea’s determined Rosemary. (The Rheas are married; Keegan is essentially their shop.) It’s vintage Shanley; the characters hold nothing back. Moonstruck savages might be a fair description of Shanley’s misfit romantics, and you’ll find yourself grinning as Keegan’s quartet adeptly taps the flinty, winsome style.

Ryan Sellers, Surasree Das and Veronica del Cerro in Constellation Theatre Company's “The Arabian Nights.” (Daniel Schwartz)

Like Keegan, Constellation gradually expanded its repertoire to include musicals. “Avenue Q” was a big winner at last year’s Hayes Awards, and “Urinetown” has six nominations this year. (Both companies are eligible in the “Helen” categories, where casts are majority non-Equity.) Constellation has always specialized in spectacle, artfully writ small. Zimmerman’s storybooks have been a signature — Artistic Director Allison Arkell Stockman even created a real pool onstage for the watery “Metamorphoses” — and percussionist Tom Teasley has often added international flavor with his live accompaniment.

Typically, Stockman’s “Arabian Nights” looks great. Designer A.J. Guban’s walls and ceiling feature dense Arabian patterns, and the set is given warmth and complexity by Jason Arnold’s lights. Stockman’s balanced ensemble is costumed by Erik Teague in flowing robes and sandals, and the performers undulate and swirl to the various pulsations supplied by Teasley, who is visible amid a semicircle of instruments at the back of the stage.

Veronica del Cerro centers the action as a fervent, persuasive Scheherezade, calming the wounded vengeance of the prince (an imposing, brooding Ryan Sellers) who beheads mistresses until her pointed stories beguile and soften him. Stockman’s second act is especially compelling: the antsy tone turns reflective, and a late scene about the power of art becomes a beautiful fugue of voices. It’s a sophisticated, polished sequence.

Constellation thinks about moving to a bigger theater it can control, rather than share, but a recent exploratory search didn’t kick up viable options. The output on the formerly rowdy stages at Source and Keegan looks steady, but changes may be afoot as both companies figure out how to sustain and grow.

Outside Mullingar, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Mark A. Rhea. Set, Matthew Keenan; lights, Dan Martin; costumes, Kelly Peacock; sound design, Tony Angelini. About two hours. Through May 28 at the Keegan Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $35-$45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit

The Arabian Nights, by Mary Zimmerman. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Dance choreography, Veronique Tran. With Shravan Amin, Surasree Das, Thomas Howley, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Yesenia Iglesias, Matthew Aldwin McGee, Dallas Milholland, Lilian Oben and Kevin Stockwell. About 2½ hours. Through June 4 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets $20-$45. Call 202-204-7800 or visit