The always brash New York lawyer Roy Cohn almost steals the show in "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been . . . ," a torn-from-the-archives drama about poet Langston Hughes facing interrogators on Capitol Hill during McCarthyism's heights. In dialogue taken straight from transcripts, Cohn proves to be a showy, dangerous prosecutor. His cross-examination technique is magnetic.
The Cohn-Hughes question-and-answer is also the most conventional aspect of the quasi-musical show at Alexandria's MetroStage. Washington theater's version of the History Channel, MetroStage has produced and sometimes created a slew of musicals about 20th-century American figures, mostly blues heroes. Director Thomas W. Jones II is applying a melodic approach to a 2012 script by Carlyle Brown that had no notable music when it debuted at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Composer and keyboardist William Knowles, playing live but out of sight, supplies an original score of jazz and blues while five actors dance and glide around Marcus Naylor, who is formidable and anguished as Hughes. Lines from Hughes's poems are projected onto the spare set's several screens, along with historical photos and video.
It's colorful, athletic and poetic — the multitalented Jones is a poet himself — and it must have seemed an irresistible way to accompany the play's first hour, which is an introspective monologue from Hughes on the eve of his nerve-racking testimony. The approach gives the 90-minute show a jumpy pace that emphasizes Hughes's anxiety.
A substantial oddity is that four of the five chorus members crooning Hughes's history are white. You go with it because of the musical fantasia, and because you know these actors eventually have to play the hostile members — Joseph McCarthy, Everett Dirksen, David Schine, Cohn — of the congressional committee.
The most notable of these turns out to be Marni Penning's charismatic Cohn. Penning doesn't serve us a stock zealous villain; her Cohn is a joyful, cocky quick thinker. The music cuts out for much of the last half-hour of this legal showdown, taken verbatim from the record books. Cohn and Hughes are good theater. Brown's drama is never on surer footing.
More historical figures are musicalized in the 90-minute "The Mistress Cycle" at Falls Church's Creative Cauldron, with five performers singing about being the other woman. The fashionable Manhattan photographer (played by Erica Clare) and the 12th-century teenage Chinese concubine (Justine Icy Moral) are composite characters. Others are real: French writer Anais Nin (Julia Capizzi), New Orleans madame Lulu White (Iyona Blake) and Catherine de Medici's rival Diane de Poitiers (Abby Middleton).
The outsider perspective has a simmering introspection in the book and lyrics by Beth Blatt and the score (played on keyboard) by Jenny Giering. The songs range from slightly formal in the musings de Poitiers to a bluesy women-of-the-night chorus. One haunting refrain deals with the concubine being "a woman in line" as the songs expand into vivid stories. The photographer's swanky reception has New York energy and neurosis, and Lulu White's long, twisting number during a train ride chugs with anticipation (and is sensitively sung by Blake).
Romantic optimism typically butts up against practical limitations, of course, but a thoughtful chorus cautions us against judging the women too quickly. Creative Cauldron is a small lab space, and director Matt Conner arranges his quintet on a thrust stage that looks like a mattress. Margie Jervis's costumes are notably good at setting periods — the smart black leather jacket for the photographer, the intricately beaded bodice for de Poitiers, voluptuous skirts for White. They aren't always happy about it, but these pensive women know who they are — and the show certainly knows exactly what it is.
Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been . . ., by Carlyle Brown. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Set, Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan; lights, John Alexander; costumes, Sigrid Johannesdottir and Michael Sharp; projections, Robbie Hayes; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith and Denise Rose. About 100 minutes. Through Nov. 5 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Tickets $55-$60. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org.
The Mistress Cycle, book and lyrics by Beth Blatt, music by Jenny Giering. Directed by Matt Conner. About 90 minutes. Music direction, Piero Bonamico; scenic and costume designer, Marge Jervis; lights, Lynn Joslin. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 29 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Avenue, Falls Church. Tickets $30. Call 703-436-9948 or visit creativecauldron.org.