- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

OPENING

• Cat On A Hot Tin Roof — Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tennessee Williams’ portrayal of a Mississippi family shattered by hypocrisy and secret desires. Part of the Tennessee Williams festival. Opens Saturday. 202/467-4600.

• A Distant Country Called Youth — Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tennessee Williams’ journey into life as an artist told through his letters to family and friends. Part of the Tennessee Williams festival. Opens tomorrow. 202/467-4600.

• The Radiant Abyss — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. A no-nonsense businesswoman persuades her young lover and his girlfriend to commit a petty crime, only to have the whole event go horribly wrong. Opens Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Film Theater. 202/467-4600.

• Tattoo Sky — Keegan Theatre. Ray and Meg think they have the perfect candidate to con only to find out they have met their match. Opens tonight at Clark Street Playhouse. 800/494-8497.

NOW PLAYING

• Cats — Toby’s Dinner Theatre — ***. Toby’s is one of the first theaters to try to re-create the kittenish allure of this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical warhorse, which premiered on Broadway in 1982. The intimacy of the space makes the show less of an empty spectacle and aligns it more closely with its source material, T.S. Eliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The keyboard-heavy 10-piece orchestra strives not to sound rinky-dink. But matters are helped by the emphasis on full-out choral singing. Costumes and makeup are captivating, and the actors give fetching portrayals of the show’s 26 cats. Through Aug. 8. 410/730-8311. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Cripple of Inishmaan — Studio Theatre — ***. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s mean and funny play dashes the idea of Ireland as the land of sweetly singing tenors and twinkly-eyed natives. The people on this barren western Irish island in the 1930s are a cruel and violent lot. But gallows-humor comedy springs from their plight, and the black humor is brought to bouncy and bawdy fruition in this production, directed with not a whit of sentimentality by Serge Seiden. Through June 27. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Mahalia: A Gospel Musical — MetroStage — ***. Hankering for some of that old-time religion? Look no further than this soul-stirring show, which bears more of a resemblance to a gospel revival meeting than to theater. It charts the life of gospel great Mahalia Jackson from her impoverished beginnings in New Orleans to singing at Carnegie Hall and for Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. It’s modest in plot and production values, but it makes up for it with three shimmering performances — those of the incomparable Bernardine Mitchell and co-stars S. Renee Clark and William Hubbard — and singing that not just raises the roof but sends it whizzing across the Potomac. You get no psychological insight here. Just go for the music. Through June 11. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris — Everyman Theatre — ***1/2. A rundown of 25 songs from Jacques Brel, the singer-songwriter whose theatrical and sometimes cynical songs expressed a certain “je ne sais quoi” during the 1950s and 60s, this revue is a simple show without unnecessary narrative. Its four performers — Christopher Bloch; Dan Manning; Sally Martin; and, especially, the rich mezzo-soprano Laura Virella (standing in for cast member Amanda Johnson) — are gifted singers who contribute immaculate harmonies and the noncloying coziness of a true ensemble. An evening of Mr. Brel’s world-weary songs can be a bit much, but Everyman delivers the songbook with such style, you can’t help but succumb to its Gallic spirit. Stop by the crepe cafe next door to Everyman on your way out, and you’ve had the perfect Parisian evening. Through June 20 at 1727 North Charles St., Baltimore. 410/752-2208. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Master and Margarita — Synetic Theater — ***. Synetic Theater is known for its non-traditional, movement-based productions, a natural fit for the black magic and black humor of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dizzyingly experimental novel, “The Master and Margarita.” The novel was secretly written in the 1930s during the Stalin regime and not published until 1967. The author caged his anti-Stalinist message in a refracted allegory of good and evil where the Devil is the main character, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate make cameo appearances. The acting ranges from the inspired to the hammy, but when the play comes into focus in its second half, the strange majesty of Mr. Bulgakov’s novel, and its epic battle between cynicism and spirituality, blazes into life. Through June 20 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. 202/462-5364. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Necessary Targets — Olney Theatre Center for the Arts — * There is something gallingly offensive about plays like playwright Eve Ensler’s ego-driven piece, which transports the self-indulgent American culture of “me, me, me” to Bosnia. There two well-heeled American women go to work among Bosnian women refugees and find their own lives transformed. What next? Some bonehead getting up on stage and proclaiming, “I visited a concentration camp and never felt more alive”? Riddled with shrink-speak about feelings, nurturing and denial, the play does impart the important message that perhaps some things just shouldn’t be dramatized, that they are sacred in their severity and are perhaps best expressed another way. Using other people’s tragedies to “get real” with yourself is an abomination. Through June 27. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Orpheus Descending — Arena Stage Kreeger Theater — **1/2. Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play is a potboiling stew of majestic lunacy and rococo characters, and this production could send you right over the edge. The characters in its malicious, bigoted rural Southern town are gaudily flawed, but fascinating; Mr. Williams’ mad poetry is at its peak here. When the Orpheus figure sidles into town in the person of hunka-hunka Val Xavier (Matt Bogart), he sets every woman’s head to whirling but homes in on the drearily married Lady Torrance (Chandler Vinton), the Eurydice figure, with whom he begins a scorchy affair. The plot is squalid, but the robust acting makes the characters something ripe and distinct on their own. Through June 22. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Picnic — Center Stage — ***1/2. William Inge’s 1953 play about the passions stirred up in a small, conformist Kansas town when a brawny outsider saunters into town during its Labor Day picnic is receiving a punchy, imaginative staging at Baltimore’s Center Stage under the guidance of director Irene Lewis. The characters are formulaic, but the sharply drawn acting and Miss Lewis’ extraordinary ability to let us in on the characters’ inner lives take us beyond the pastel-colored peppiness of the era into something rich in shadow and light. This is a revival in the best sense. Through June 20. 410/332-0033. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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