- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

OPENING

• Anna in the Tropics — Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage. A dashing Cuban lector is hired to read “Anna Karenina” aloud to the workers in a 1920s South Florida cigar factory, but his presence ignites a yearning for love in the workers. Opens tomorrow. 202/488-3300.

• Blithe Spirit — Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. The Noel Coward comedy. Charles Condomine is visited by the ghost of his dead wife Elvira, who is determined to wreak havoc on the household, much to the dismay of his current wife Ruth. Opens Tuesday. 301/924-3400.

• Diamond Dead — Landless Theatre Company. A world premiere musical by Richard Hartley about a rock band called the Diamond Dead, who have a contract to feed the Grim Reaper; the patrons are on the menu for dinner. Opens tonight at the District of Columbia Arts Center. 202/462-7833.

NOW PLAYING

• Living Out — Round House Bethesda — ***. Playwright Lisa Loomer’s latest work, a disquieting drama masquerading as comedy, takes on the prickly, singular relationship between elite L.A. mothers and immigrant nannies. As high-powered entertainment lawyer Nancy (Holly Twyford) takes on a new Salvadoran nanny, Ana (Joselin Reyes), the two worlds collide in a downbeat and guilt-struck ending to a play previously filled with insight and bristling humor. It’s brightly and tartly staged under the direction of Wendy C. Goldberg, and the acting is top-notch throughout. This story of two women stretches out to larger issues about race, privilege, citizenship and belonging. Through Oct. 10. 240/644-1100. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• M. Butterfly — Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage — ***1/2. David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play is based on a true-life scandal, the affair between a French diplomat in China and a Chinese opera singer who was not just a man, but a spy. Mr. Hwang’s deft deconstruction of the stereotypes Westerners hold about Eastern culture remains powerful and wrenching. However, the play is on its firmest footing when dealing with the blurred edges of sexuality, male fantasies and domination versus submission. Stephen Bogardus gives a gentle, restrained portrayal of the hapless protagonist, while newcomer J. Hiroyuki Liao as the spy holds a viewer spellbound with stylized gestures and graceful bows that are almost absurdly feminine. Through Oct. 17. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Macbeth — The Shakespeare Theatre — **. “Macbeth” charts the trajectory of the former “brave knight” (Patrick Page) who quickly goes from hailed loyal nobleman to reviled psychopathic tyrant after he is seized by a “vaulting ambition” — the result of the weird sisters’ prophecy and some shrewd goading by his wife (Kelly McGillis). Sets, shadow play and costumes make this a dazzling production. Beyond the purely visual, it’s respectable but not greatly involving. With its cool, modern Danish sensibilities, this staging presents a portrait of ruthless ambition that attracts the eye but gives emotions the brush-off. Through Oct. 24. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• One Red Flower — Signature Theatre — **1/2. As might be expected from a musical about the Vietnam War, Paris Barclay’s play, inspired by the book “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” leaves you rubbed raw. This new production, under the sure direction of Eric Schaeffer, is stunning. Mr. Barclay paints fervent musical portraits of six soldiers serving “in country” in 1969. The lyrics are based primarily on the actual words of the real-life soldiers. Their poems and letters home are by turns wistful, funny, despairing and always stippled with homesickness. The score relies on rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of the period. The superb cast creates lucid, emotionally resonant characters, and the play potently captures the wrath and harrowing ambiguity of a war that continues to disturb Americans. Through Sunday. 703/218-8500. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Phantom of the Opera — Hippodrome Theatre — ***. The Andrew Lloyd Webber smash has haunted theaters for 16 years — and shows not a trace of tatter. In the current touring production, Harold Prince’s often magical staging is intact, as are Maria Bjornson’s lavish belle-epoque sets and jewel-toned costumes. In fact, the musical’s evocation of the Paris Opera House in 1881 looks particularly fine in Baltimore’s newly restored Hippodrome Theatre, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. Cast cutbacks show at times, but the music is lush and over-the-top, and the 36-member cast attacks the musical with intensity and fervor. For the most part, the magic of “The Phantom” remains potent. Through Sunday at 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore. 800/889-8457. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Russian National Postal Service — Studio Theatre —***. This 85-minute play by Oleg Bogaev, 34, a black-humored playwright from the “new Russia,” bracingly kicks off Studio Theatre’s season-long salute to Russian playwrights and authors. It’s a bleak look at a lonely widower who has no vital place in post-Soviet Russia and spends his days writing letters to world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Lenin and Stalin. Floyd King, a master of physical comedy, does a bravura turn as the retiree, imbuing the role with gentle comedic shadings and a dexterous touch of melancholy. His pen pals, who crowd his apartment as he drifts in and out of sleep, are deftly drawn. Through Oct. 17. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Time of Your Life — American Century Theater — . Playwright William Saroyan was known for his schmaltz and salty patter, and this amiable masterpiece, written in 1939, is no exception. Set in a waterfront dive in San Francisco, it’s a big, booming stew of ideas, pedagogy and love of man that boozily celebrates survival, idealism and personal freedom. It would be grand to bask in its sentiment and bravura language, but this production’s large cast never gels as an ensemble. The actors trip over their lines, speak on top of one another or deliver themselves of leaden silences. Wit and whimsy fall flat, compromising the warm, sprawling quality of a Saroyan play. A Saroyan revival may be what this country needs, but this woebegone production will do little to spur it. Through Oct. 9 at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center. 703/553-8782. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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