- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

OPENING

{bullet} Democracy — Olney Theatre Center. Michael Frayn’s intellectual drama of mid-century West German politics and the spy scandal that engulfed Chancellor Willy Brandt’s government. Opens Wednesday. 301/924-3400.

NOW PLAYING

{bullet} Brooklyn BoyOlney Theatre Center — ***1/2. Donald Margulies’ funny, pain-soaked memory play, brought to life in a beautifully acted and visually dazzling production by director Jim Petosa, takes a successful autobiographical novelist back to home turf and the miserable mother lode of his material — his caustic, fault-finding father and the neighborhood where he is now an outsider. Mr. Margulies’ sharp, acutely observed writing is a pleasure through most of the play, although the ending is rather pat and contrived. If anything, “Brooklyn Boy” confirms the outsider status of a writer, that longing to return to the familiar that perhaps never really existed except in the frayed, fragile edges of memory. Through July 29. 301/924-3400.

{bullet} Dead Man’s Cell Phone — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — ****. After you die, the body may decay but your ring tone lives on in Sarah Ruhl’s winsomely askew comedy, in which a lonely woman reflexively answers the ringing cell phone of a just-expired stranger and becomes enmeshed in his former life — with his wacko family, his tempestuous mistress and his nefarious line of work, trafficking in human organs. It’s an irresistible setup for physical comedy and wordplay, which Miss Ruhl concocts in abundance. This world premiere is directed with a sure hand by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, who deftly balances the satire, whimsy and sheer poetry of the piece. Through Saturday. 202/393-3939.

{bullet} Hamlet — Shakespeare Theatre Company — ***. Director Michael Kahn’s production of Shakespeare’s introspective revenge tragedy is a green and gutsy production all around, imbued with a certain wildness and the hormonally antsy angst of misunderstood youth. Witty young touches abound as Hamlet woos the young Ophelia via IPod downloads and cell phones go off during rehearsal. Sets and costumes are sleekly contemporary. But in spite of its caffeinated energy, when it is time for Hamlet to take action, or for us to feel for Ophelia’s madness or Gertrude’s anguish, behind the buzz there is nothing but emptiness. Through July 29. 202/547-1122.

{bullet} 1001 — Contemporary American Theater Festival — ***. Bizarre, intriguing, sometimes maddening but always challenging, Jason Grote’s take on the “1001 Nights” could easily become the hit of CATF’s 2007 season. Don’t expect a a linear plot, as the play uses the classic work’s embedded frame-tale device to travel through time. It examines human tribal narratives and asks whether we are all doomed to remain trapped within our own endlessly recycling story lines. It’s heady stuff, with excellent acting, often astonishing special effects, irresistibly madcap forward motion and unexpected bursts of off-the-wall humor. Through July 29 at the Frank Center Theater, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. 800/999-2283. — T.L. Ponick

{bullet} The Phantom of the Opera — Kennedy Center Opera House — **1/2. With accomplished singing, sumptuous costumes, gorgeous sets and impressive effects, the Cameron Mackintosh/Really Useful Theatre Company’s national touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical feels perfectly at home in the District’s most prestigious show-biz venue. Tenor John Cudia leads the 36-member company with aplomb as the Phantom, and Marni Raab is at times captivating as Christine, his protege. But Mr. Lloyd Webber’s score, once so imaginative, is now a little dated and isn’t helped by the lackluster performance of the Opera House Orchestra led by Glenn Langdon, which may as well have phoned it in. Through Aug. 12. 202/467-4600. — Kelly Jane Torrance

{bullet} Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — Studio Theatre — **1/2. Feelings of deja vu turn quickly to moments of fresh delight in this 40th anniversary revival of Tom Stoppard’s brainiac existential comedy about two minor characters from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” waiting in the wings for all eternity. A masterful centerpiece performance by veteran actor Floyd King as the Player King is enhanced by a fantastic supporting cast of tragedians. Yet the portrayals of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are almost generic interpretations, and the production overall seems as airless and trapped as the main characters themselves. Through July 22. 202/332-3300.

{bullet} Valparaiso — Forum Theater and Dance — ***. Novelist Don DeLillo’s 1999 play is a disturbing and disquietingly erotic look at our obsession with image and media attention. A traveling businessman becomes a media darling because he’s been mistakenly deposited in Valparaiso, Chile, instead of Valparaiso, Ind. His life and his wife’s become lost among the cameras and the lights — until they’re destroyed by the same media. Forum exhibits its usual potent style with its trademark movement-based choreography, on view through a Greek chorus of peppy flight attendants. The cast is more than up to the job; Charlotte Akin aces the role of the talk-show queen who guts the couple on air. Through July 22 at the H Street Playhouse. 202/489-1701.

{bullet} The Witches of Eastwick — Signature Theatre — **1/2. Director Eric Schaeffer has worked with the creators of this musical comedy, John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe, and producer Cameron Macintosh to update the 20-year-old movie about a trio of discontented New Englanders who become empowered after some sexual healing. The emphasis is on sex, and this musical version is tarted up like a prostitute on Easter Sunday. The production values are superb, the cast almost absurdly talented, and some of the R-rated cheekiness is fun for a while. But many of the numbers seem like raunched-up “borrows” from other musicals, and the whole show is a pale imitation of better shows. Combine that with a frankly demeaning retro perspective that women can only achieve liberation and empowerment through an outside force, such as a man, and you have a “Witches” that bothers more than it bewitches. Through July 22. 703/820-7790. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS