- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

It’s never too early to begin a new gift list. After all, there are only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2006.

But this column is not about putting dibs on the next must-have item — perhaps a Razr cell phone the size of a Communion wafer or an IPod that makes the Nano look like an eight-track player in comparison. This column is about theater gifts — the ones Washington audiences received in the past year and ones we would like to get. A new Sondheim musical in 2006 is probably wishful thinking, but the rest of the list seems well within reason and reasonable budgets.

1. Take the ‘50s — please. Whoever coined the phrase “bring back the ‘50s” ought to have a Nehi cola jammed up his nose. With area productions of “Born Yesterday,” “Damn Yankees,” “Tea and Sympathy” and yet another revival of “Grease,” Washington audiences were awash in Eisenhower-era nostalgia. Postwar America might have gleamed with optimism, Pepsodent smiles and can-do attitudes, but enough already.

2. The ‘60s, however. It is generally thought that aside from rock music and pop art, the ‘60s were a cultural wasteland. Centerstage’s delirious, hippy-dippy staging of the musical “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Everyman’s revival of the intriguing “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground,” and the Kennedy Center’s anticipated upcoming production of “The Subject Was Roses” all show that theater was alive and well during this turbulent time, and plays such as John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” Julian Beck’s “Paradise Now!” or the works of Megan Terry and Adrienne Kennedy might be worth a second look.

3. Fresh faces we’d like to see more often. Cooper D’Ambrose, still a college student at North Carolina School of the Arts, displayed unusual poise and bearing playing Oscar Wilde in “Gross Indecency” at Theater Alliance. James Flanagan was outstanding in “The “Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” in which he played two characters trying to hide their insecurities through a fusillade of sarcasm. Meg Gillentine gave us a Lola from the musical “Damn Yankees” embodying graceful athleticism, killer pipes and that kittenish Laura Petrie-style sexiness.

When Alexander Strain walked onstage at the Washington Shakespeare Company in the small but essential role of the Narrator in “Medea,” people were muttering, “Who is that guy?” He went on to have a brilliant year, playing everything from Jennifer Mendenhall’s drug-dealing lover in “You Are Here” at Theater Alliance to various roles in “Gross Indecency.” We hope to see more of this promising young actor in 2006.

4. Familiar faces we can’t get enough of. Rich Foucheux, whose exultant, endearing performance as Mason Marzac, a homosexual accountant and Johnny-come-lately baseball fan, made Studio’s production of Richard Greenberg’s heart-shaped tribute to the diamond, “Take Me Out,” a must-see. Miss Mendenhall showed nerve and searing intensity in “Medea” at MetroStage and as a cannily observant survivor in “You Are Here.” Sherry Edelen’s versatility was on display in dramatic roles in “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Headman’s Holiday” as well as the musicals “Urinetown” (in which she wins the costume good sport award for her fright wig, eye patch and leg brace) and “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Her frequent co-star Will Gartshore cemented his matinee-idol status with star turns in “Frog and Toad” and “Urinetown.” Aubrey Deeker also distinguished himself as an offbeat romantic hero in the plays “Camille,” “Lovesong of the Electric Bear,” “Lorenzaccio,” and “The Clandestine Marriage.”

5. OK, Kennedy Center, it’s time for another festival. It’s hard to be gushy about a year in which we lost the magnificent playwright August Wilson and learned about Wendy Wasserstein’s battle with leukemia. Perhaps someone should step up and present an August Wilson festival, in which people could see all 10 works in his far-reaching play cycle documenting 20th-century black history decade by decade. The time is now — not when an obit runs in Variety — to start thinking about a showcase of Miss Wasserstein’s work, including her newest play, “Third,” which got its start at Theater J.

6. More Aaron Posner and Douglas C. Wager. These guys are to Shakespearean comedy what Victoria’s Secret is to underwire. Mr. Wager’s “Sons of the Desert”-meets-the-Bing Crosby/Bob Hope-road movies approach to “Comedy of Errors” resulted in nonstop, inventive hilarity. Mr. Posner brought a similar sense of effortlessness and lightness to his “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Folger. They make Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays” no problem.

7. Shows that engage Gens X and Y. With “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” Studio Theatre seems to have figured out a way to attract the elusive and much-prized young-adult audience. Middle-aged theatergoers felt like hobbling into assisted living after seeing the pretty young things of both sexes packing the seats during last summer’s run of “Jenny Chow,” a play about computer geeks, instant messaging and the perpetual ache of trying to figure out where we belong — and to whom. Theater Alliance appears to have tapped into that pipeline as well, attracting a young and hip crowd to “Headman’s Holiday” and “Gross Indecency.”

8. The middle will kill you. The 2005 theater season was host to too many middle-of-the-road, so-so shows that had many laudable performances but were uninspired on so many levels you had to wonder, “Why bother”? In theater, it’s not the extremes that do you in, but the slow, dispiriting death you experience from seeing too many mediocre shows in a row.

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