- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

OPENING

• A Flag is Born — American Century Theater. A political play that provides a flamboyant argument for a Jewish homeland. Opens tonight. 703/553-8782.

• The Next Gig — Signature Theatre. Pop/folk artist Jill Sobule stars in her own musical, which takes two friends deep into the heart of America. Opens Tuesday. 703/218-6500

• Unspoken Prayers — Horizons Theatre. A father and mother must come to terms with their conflicting views of capital punishment after their youngest daughter is murdered. Opens tonight at the Hand Chapel, George Washington University, Mt. Vernon Campus. 703/578-1100.

NOW PLAYING

• Cats — Toby’s Dinner Theatre — *** Toby’s is one of the first theaters to attempt to re-create the kittenish allure of this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical warhorse, which premiered on Broadway in 1982 and has just become available for regional productions. 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 “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a dotty and keenly observed musing on mouser behavior. You do miss a complete orchestra, however, as the keyboard-heavy 10-piece orchestra strives not to sound rinky-dink. Matters are greatly aided by an emphasis on all-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.

• Deathwatch — Actors’ Theatre of Washington, Washington Shakespeare Company — **. This visually stunning joint production of French playwright Jean Genet’s 1942 work takes place in prison, as three inmates sharing a cell vie for power and control. It’s theater verite in a raw, unfinished, cell-like space where theatergoers sit on uncomfortable chairs or on cushions on the floor. The set is a cement block obscured by a scrim that is so close you can practically touch the actors, and the effect is clammy and claustrophobic. The production’s visual aspects are superb. If the acting were as compelling, you’d really have something. There are hailstorms of overacting, but they are off-putting in such a small space and seldom amount to anything except unintentionally hilarious expressions of angst. Through Saturday at the Warehouse Theater’s Second Stage. 202/298-9077. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Having Our Say — Olney Theatre Center for the Arts — **. Based on a popular 1993 book, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” was a Broadway hit and earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations when it was made into a play in 1995. But it isn’t aging as well as the 103-year-old Sadie and the 101-year-old Bessie did. It seems like ancient history to have the sisters talking about Dan Quayle, David Duke and Jimmy Carter. What really saps this un-spry production of its vitality is the acting: Claudia Robinson is effective as Sadie, but Gloria Suave as Bessie flubbed so many of her lines and tripped over so many cues you wondered if she was a last-minute understudy. (She wasn’t.) Sad to say, Olney’s production does not uphold the impeccable standards these women aspired to — and achieved — in their long, fulfilling lives. Through Sunday. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Homebody/Kabul — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Theatre J — ***1/2. Director John Vreeke has a genius for taking dense material and spinning it into something unexpectedly magical and immediate. He’s done it again with a wrenchingly affecting and beautifully acted production of Tony Kushner’s nearly four-hour play, in which a British housewife takes off for adventure in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, only to disappear and leave her daughter and husband searching the country for her. Mr. Vreeke has taken a wordy, political play and made it into a moving study of what happens to human beings assaulted by tragedy and flux. Through April 11 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Sweeney Todd — Center Stage — ***1/2. Irene Lewis, artistic director at Baltimore’s Center Stage, daringly eliminates most of the Victorian-era and music-hall trappings that dominate many a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterpiece. She opts instead for something darker, sleeker and altogether more vampiric, with a goth-punk edge that owes as much to the Cure as it does to Bertolt Brecht. While the overall level falls short of the steamy production at the Kennedy Center two years ago, it gains in sheer verve what it may lack in resources. Sondheim purists might squawk, but those with open minds are in for a show that puts over the gorgeous material in electrifying and prickly ways. Through April 11. 410/332-0033. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Syringa Tree — Studio Theatre — ****. Studio’s production of Pam Gien’s play, directed with subtle humanity by J.R. Sullivan, arouses both accolades and a sense of urgency. Actress Gin Hammond’s transcendent solo performance is miraculous. She plays more than 20 characters of various ages, genders and ethnicities as she conjures the parallel lives of whites and blacks in South Africa through 40 years, under apartheid and freed from it. The play is a one-woman show and portrays a small universe, but there is something operatic and epic in scale about “The Syringa Tree.” It is a singular theatrical experience. Extended through March 28. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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