Theater critic’s preview for the new year

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Michael Toscano

Frankie R. Faison will be playing an ex-cop who faces eviction from a valuable New York City apartment in the play Between Riverside and Crazy, which premieres at Studio Theatre Jan. 13. The dark comedy won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Photo by Teddy Wolff

With discretionary spending on theater tickets sometimes challenging for patrons to manage, some area companies have played it safe in recent years. They have been offering productions they know will fill seats, rather than experimenting with new plays and musicals.

But with the economy on the upswing, 2016 offers the opportunity to move away a bit from the tried-and-true favorites that have often occupied their stages in recent seasons.

Here are some critic’s choices for shows coming up that have the promise of reminding us why we love theater. This is subjective, of course, so I recommend you check theater websites to see what might interest you that I may have missed.

In Virginia

1st Stage, with its stadium-style seating, this intimate theater tucked away in Tyson’s Corner seems to be the perfect setting for When the Rain Stops Falling, by Andrew Bovell. The plot follows four generations of fathers and sons and their mothers, lovers and wives. The theater company describes it as “a monumental piece of theatre, epic in scope and poetic in language and imagery.”

Time Magazine named it “best new play of 2010,” with a review from Richard Zoglin that stated it “is something that really throws the audience out of its comfort zone. This challenging play has the most complicated time-shifting dramatic structure I’ve seen in years....It is a powerful metaphor for the impossibility of escaping the past, for the way we are all shaped by what came before — and are living in the shadow of what comes next.”

Feb. 4 to 28 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons Corner, Va., (703) 854-1856, www.1ststagespringhill.org

Signature Theatre in Shirlington gives Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show a chance to make good in America’s premier Sondheim showplace, after failing (repeatedly) elsewhere.

The musical has been known by a series of titles, which should tell you something. (And not something good.) It was Wise Guys, and Gold!and Bounce…but never a hit.

The music and lyrics are from Sondheim, of course, with a book by John Weidman

. They earlier collaborated on the brilliant Assassins and the pleasant-enough Pacific Overtures.

This is the tale of the real-life Mizner brothers and their (mis)adventures early in the last century. Both the the Alaskan Gold Rush and the 1920s Florida real estate boom are featured.

The musical came and went through the Kennedy Center in 2003, helmed by Signature’s own Eric Schaeffer, in a rare miss with Sondheim material. It was re-worked yet again Off-Broadway in 2008.

But this is Stephen Sondheim, for music’s sake, and his material deserves another shot. This time Gary Griffin directs, following his success with the show in Chicago.

If it works, you can say you were there. And if not, hey, it’s Sondheim at Signature. How bad could it be?

Feb. 9 to March 13 in the MAX at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va., (703) 820- 9771, www.sigtheatre.org.

In Maryland

Olney Theatre Company has a pair of interesting shows on the boards early in the new year.

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musicalis based on the beloved opera by Georges Bizet. This is a world premiere production, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, whom you may know as the playwright of the world-wide smash The Laramie Project. The original and adapted music is by two-time Grammy Award-winner Arturo O’Farrill, with choreography from Broadway’s Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Memphis). 

Here’s Olney’s description, which says they turn “Bizet’s passion-fueled opera into a sexy, swinging AfroCuban Jazz musical, moving the action from 1820s Spain to Cuba in 1958, on the verge of revolution. Kaufman’s Carmen is a gun-runner for the rebels, who falls fiercely in love with José, a Batista loyalist. When Cuba’s boxing legend Camilo returns to Havana, Carmen and José’s love falls tragically apart.”

Wow. Sounds kinda hot.

Feb. 10 to March 6 on the Mainstage.

Olney is also producing the regional premiere of Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison (Maple and Vine, Orange Is the New Black). Marjorie is 85 years old, and she’s reinventing memories from the past, aided by a hologram of her dead husband as he looked 50 years previously. Now that’s high concept!

The New York Times called it “a tender, searching comedy....A thought-provoking play about memory, its corruption, and our insistence that technology can help us outwit death.” They had me at hologram.

March 10 to April 10 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. Olney Theatre Company, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md., (301) 924-3400, www.olneytheatre.org

Round House Theatre stages Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), a new drama from Suzan Lori-Parks. This screenwriter and playwright, who has a resume stuffed with awards and nominations, was the first female African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 2002 for TopDog/UnderDog). Her shows have always done well in Washington, both with critics and with audiences.

This play is set during the Civil War, and follows a slave named Hero from West Texas to the Confederate battlefield. Voted top theater pick of 2014 by the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Huffington Post and Vulture, this play is partly inspired by Greek tragedy as it examines war and the cost of freedom.   

Jan. 27 to Feb. 21 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md., (240) 664-1100, www.roundhousetheatre.org

Washington, D.C.

Studio Theatrebrings us the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Between Riverside and Crazy, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who also wrote The [bleep] with the Hat, which had great success there.

Walter “Pops” Washington is a cranky former cop — a widower who happens to live in a prime piece of real estate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It’s one of those New York apartments we usually see only on TV sitcoms: a spacious, rent-controlled apartment with a view of the Hudson River. You know, the kind of place people would kill for. There may be a bit of that going on.

There are eviction notices from the landlord. And family and friends are urging him to make a deal and leave. But Pops isn’t about to leave his past behind just yet.

Jan. 13 to at least Feb. 28 at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, (202) 332-3300, www.studiotheatre.org

Spooky Action Theaterbrings us the recipient of the 2012 Lawrence Olivier Award for Best Play — the darkly comic Collaborators. The quite original-sounding play is written by British screenwriter and dramatist John Hodge, most noted for adapting the novel Trainspottingto film.

Here he takes us to Moscow, 1938-40, where real-life playwright Mikhail Bulgakov gets a visit from a couple of secret police officers, who inform him he must help them write a play about Josef Stalin. Soon he finds himself face-to-face with the fearsome dictator. That part is fiction, but the two did actually have some earlier contact.

What Hodge does is conjure up an imaginary scenario where, as the theater company describes it, the question becomes, “who is the author and who is writing history?”

Feb. 11 to March 6, by Spooky Action Theater, performing at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW, (202) 248-0301, www.spookyaction.org

Arena Stage has a very Washington-centric show coming — The City of Conversation by Anthony Giardina. Yes, it’s about us, in all our melodrama.

Hester Ferris is a Pamela Harriman-like figure — a grand figure who becomes the Georgetown hostess/powerbroker. Over a span of three decades (Carter to Obama), we see the social niceties that used to help oil the machinery of government go dry, the mechanism then beginning to rust and deteriorate.

There is a lot of inside baseball politicos will enjoy, and gossipy conversation for those who find the politics boring but people interesting.

It seems to be one of those plays where success rests almost entirely on a cast and director who can move us rapidly through implausibilities, soften the rough edges of partisan messaging, and inflate the characters beyond cardboard cutouts.

It may be fun to see how well director Doug Hughes does in his Arena debut.

Jan. 29 to March 6, on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, (202) 554-9066 www.arenastage.org.

Happy New Year. Curtains up!