- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

Big stars, little shows.

That’s the schizo theme of Washington theater this fall. On the one hand, local venues will host top names, and on the other hand, because of economic realities, many companies have scaled back to smaller productions.

First, the star power. In his Tony Award-winning autobiographical show “700 Sundays” (National Theatre Sept. 9 through 17), Billy Crystal eschews stand-up comedy to portray the many characters — from jazz musicians and teen influences to family members — who made him the pensive funnyman he is.

There is nothing like a dame — Dame Helen Mirren, that is. The star of “The Queen” dons another crown — that of a royal sexed-up over her stepson — to play the classic title role of “Phedre” at the Shakespeare Theatre Sept. 17 through 26. This much-lauded National Theatre of Great Britain production also features Margaret Tyzack (“Lettice and Lovage”) and Dominic Cooper (“The Duchess,” “The History Boys”).

Another royal personage, Cate Blanchett — she has twice played Queen Elizabeth I — comes over from her Australian home to play a quintessentially Southern character, the extravagantly needy Blanche DuBois, in the American premiere of the Sydney Theatre Company’s staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Kennedy Center Oct. 29 through Nov. 21). Esteemed Swedish actress Liv Ullmann directs.

You can’t get much bigger than Beelzebub. That’s right, the leader of the damned is back in Washington — has he ever left? — in an encore engagement of “The Screwtape Letters,” the theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel about an office in hell. The devil and his minions return to the Lansburgh Theatre Dec. 16 through Jan. 3.

Speaking of underworld icons, Dracula will eroticize Rosslyn once again when Synetic Theater presents a new restaging of the Bram Stoker classic with Dan Istrate playing the blood-tippling count (Oct. 16 through Nov. 15 at the Rosslyn Spectrum). Another doomed, yet attractive figure haunts an area stage — the Faustian hottie Dorian Gray in Round House Theatre’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (through Oct. 4) based on Oscar Wilde’s scandalous novel and written by former Washingtonian Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Other sizable shows this season include the falsetto jukebox musical “Jersey Boys,” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, harmonizing at the National Oct. 1 through Dec. 12; the drama of a dysfunctional Midwestern family, “August: Osage County,” at the Kennedy Center Nov. 24 through Dec. 20; the big-sets Mel Brooks musical “Young Frankenstein” at the Kennedy Center Opera House Dec. 15 through Jan. 10; and a reinvention by Eric Schaeffer of the 1927 musical “Showboat” at Signature Theatre, running Nov. 10 through Jan. 17.

Otherwise, the year in theater offers many smaller-scale works, including so many one-person shows it may seem at times we’re watching the Biography channel. In addition to shows about Mae West (“Dirty Blonde” at Signature through Oct. 4), Zero Mostel (“Zero Hour” at Theatre J through Sept. 27), Clarence Darrow (“A Passion for Justice” at Olney Theatre Center through Sept. 13) and Pearl Bailey (MetroStage, Nov. 19 through Dec. 20), next year brings shows about Andy Warhol (Theatre J, March 6 through 21), Buckminster Fuller (Arena Stage, May 28 through July 4), Thurgood Marshall (Kennedy Center, June 1 through 20) and transvestite survivor of Nazi rule and East German communism Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (“I Am My Own Wife,” Signature Theatre, Jan. 12 through March 7).

Other smaller-cast shows include “Black Pearl Sings!” featuring the considerable talents of Tony Award-winning actress Tonya Pinkins and director Jennifer Nelson (Ford’s Theatre Sept. 25 through Oct. 18), and the new show “Mommy Queerest” (beginning Dec. 20) with Judy Gold returning to Theatre J.

In contrast, the modest Forum Theatre says “What economic downturn?” with its decision to stage the complete “Angels in America” at Round House Theatre Silver Spring Oct. 4 through Nov. 22. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play features big themes and a big cast and will star local favorites Alexander Strain, Jennifer Mendenhall, Karl Miller and Casey Platt.

Woolly Mammoth also goes for the major issues in “Eclipsed” (through Sept. 20), about the captive wives of a Liberian rebel officer, and Charles L. Mee’s “Full Circle” (Oct. 26 through Nov. 29), a political satire extravaganza that will be staged throughout Woolly’s entire building.

The New York-bound drama “The Quality of Life” stops at Arena Stage Sept. 11 through Nov. 1. Jane Anderson, a writer on TV’s “Mad Men,” crafted this play about comfort and loss. “Adding Machine,” an adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionistic play, makes a musical out of office monotony. The New York transplant will play at Studio Theatre beginning Sept. 14 .

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