Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili from the screenplay by Rezo Gabriadze

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili

At the Rosslyn Spectrum to Feb. 8

Malcolm

Adapted by Edward Albee from the novel by James Purdy

Directed by Ian Allen

At the Source Theatre to March 6

Welcome to My Rash

Third

By Wendy Wasserstein

Directed by Michael Barakiva

At Theater J to Feb. 15

If pressed to pick the ideal moment for defiling innocence, I suppose I’d have to choose the beginning of a new year. The imagery is already present in greeting cards and store displays: a diapered baby too big for his sash, taking over from a stooped, decrepit old man. Resolutions are still unbroken, seeds still unsprouted, and the notion that things will be better on this journey ’round the sun still shimmers tantalizingly.

Then comes the crash, of course, but for the briefest of instants, it’s almost possible to believe in uncorrupted sweetness...and to worry about whether it will be corrupted. No doubt that’s why two of D.C.’s more ambitious troupes have chosen this moment to mount affecting, frequently funny tales of innocents abroad.

Both stories, as it happens, are adaptations of works from other media, and both concern young boys set adrift by the deaths of their fathers. In The Crackpots, the movement-based Synetic Theater reimagines in highly stylized terms the 1973 film Sherekilebi, which avoided Soviet censorship by using comedy and indirection to tell of a farm boy’s journey through a society in which people with unconventional ideas tend to get isolated in mental institutions and prisons. In Malcolm, Cherry Red Productions brings its cheerfully smutty aesthetic to Edward Albee’s adaptation of a James Purdy novel about a sweet urban adolescent who gets taken under a few too many protective wings and ends up dying of sexual exhaustion. In each case, the mood is comic, the undercurrents decidedly dark.

The Crackpots begins with a startling series of images as its leading man, Ertaoz (Greg Marzullo), hoes a field in preparation for spring planting. The field’s furrows are the undulating arms and legs of Synetic’s other cast members, and as Ertaoz works, those limbs and the bodies attached to them get transformed from furrows into seedlings, then into stalks of wheat, and finally get harvested. The process (managed with the troupe’s usual flair under the direction of Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina Tsikurishvili) is as amusing as it is arresting—and good preparation for the fabulist odyssey to come. When Ertaoz’s father dies, leaving only debts as an inheritance, the lad sells all their worldly goods, dismantles their house, and still comes up short. Then he heads bravely off to town, where he buys a chicken (played with hilarious avian pluck by Nicholas I. Allen), falls for the town floozy (goofily pulchritudinous Catherine Gasta), and angers the local police chief (certifiably crazed Irakli Kasadze) before ending up incarcerated in a dry well with a former physicist (the director in rags and high dudgeon) who is trying to invent a flying machine.

That the two prisoners must eventually take flight is a given, but the ecstatic manner of their soaring—10-foot wings beating so furiously that on opening night, the wind they stirred up could be felt in the seventh row—is nonetheless captivating. Synetic’s magic is usually accomplished in dimmer light, with darker purpose. Here, the comedy is broad, with choreographed Keystone Kops routines, sex-farce timing, tumbling clowns, cavorting comics, and plenty of opportunities for Marzullo to light up the stage with the melting eyes and headlamp smile of youthful idealism. The actor conjures a childlike innocence that simply will not allow him to see the world’s cruelty, and for a couple of hours at the Spectrum Theater, you savor his world with him.

If the hero of The Crackpots comes across as a Soviet Candide let loose in Wonderland, the similarly naive title character in Malcolm traverses a more creepy landscape—call this immorality tale an ambisexual, modernist take on Dickens.

Adolescent Malcolm (Brandon Thane Wilson) is sitting on a bench in a hotel’s courtyard as the lights come up, attired in suit, tie, and sneakers, staring the blankest of stares. He is in every sense an innocent, waiting for a father who inexplicably disappeared months ago, and looking—though not with any urgency—for direction.

“If someone were to tell me what to do, I’d do it,” he says to Cox (Jack Seeley), the snarky old man in top hat and tails who offers to introduce him to a few friends. Several encounters later, Malcolm is in the hotel courtyard again, this time shivering in his underwear, and it’s clear that such wide-eyed acceptance isn’t the best approach to the urban environment Albee’s designed for him. The boy is variously pawed and leered at by an ancient bilious fellow who claims to be 192 and his whorish young wife, by a mentally unstable artist and her ex-con husband, by a wealthy, unsavory couple who plan to bundle him off to their summer house, and by a pop singer who quite literally loves him to death.

At the play’s 1966 premiere, the New York critics were not amused. One called the play “a catastrophe”; another labelled it “a large crock of abstract and often repellent refuse.” The Broadway production—which starred Henderson Forsythe, Estelle Parsons, and as the title character a youngster named Matthew Cowles (who ended up years later as an inmate in television’s Oz)—closed in just four days. Not having seen that original, I can’t be sure what the director’s approach was, but the reviews treat the evening as a straightforward morality tale and don’t make it sound very funny.

Cherry Red’s approach is voyeuristic and leering, as might be expected of a company that dedicates itself to smut, but Ian Allen’s spare, smartly acted staging unlocks quite a bit of comedy in the script and makes a decent case for the play as one of Albee’s sharper pieces of absurdism. The performances are all capable, from Richard Renfield’s cowering geezer to Glee Murray’s strident socialite to Seeley’s avuncular pederast. Carlos Bustamante makes a cheerfully vivid impression as an ex-con in a frilly robe who recalls, just a tad too dreamily, the prison showers he once took, and the rest, including three buff pretty-boys who parade around in nothing more than white briefs and socks, are equivalently outré. Centering all this luridness is young Wilson, who can’t be much over 14, and who gives a solid, professional performance in what have to be somewhat unnerving late-night circumstances.

Lucas Zarwell’s mood-creating scoring is a strong asset, as are Rhonda Key’s seriously out-there fashions. (Her black and white loungewear and hat for Melissa-Leigh Douglass’ screeching artist is a neat job of character assassination by costume.) And what comes through most clearly is the archly literate dialogue: “You’ll be our son,” says one of Malcolm’s suitors. “I’ll be like your son,” corrects the lad—which merits a sigh from his elder, along with a comment: “Between simile and metaphor lies all the sadness in the world.”

Graceful, that, and well worth rescuing from the refuse heap.

If you know that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, professor, and single mom Wendy Wasserstein has recently been dealing with an illness that has slackened the muscles in part of her face, and with the frustration many liberal academics feel as conservatives take over the academy, then the subject matter of her comedies-in-progress at Theater J will sound decidedly close to home. Welcome to My Rash concerns a successful writer and single mom dealing with an illness that has paralyzed her upper lip, and Third chronicles a conflict between a feminist literature prof and a student she regards as a “retro-heterosexual sociopath.”

The good news is that Wasserstein appears to have met her personal crises with fortitude and good humor. The less-good news is that she’s come up with a pair of annoyingly flip one-acts on subjects that obviously concern her.

Rash is the weaker of the two—an extended conversation between celebrated author Flora (Kathryn Grody) and the jet-setting doctor (Bill Grimmette) who prescribes an experimental treatment for the ailments he thinks may be related to an unexplained rash she suffered some 20 years earlier. Flora is plucky (“Tingling hands and feet, loss of balance, my upper lip doesn’t move...I keep waiting for hailstones, locusts and vermin”); the doctor is supportive (“You make me laugh”). And the malady lingers on.

It does so through debilitating treatments and Demerol-fueled visions of a blindfolded Psyche (Janine Barris) being wooed by a dim Cupid (Edward Boroevich) as wise old Venus looks on in annoyance from her hospital bed. You have to grant Wasserstein a deftness with one-liners and an intriguing central notion; Flora’s ailments seem to suggest she’s allergic to her own hormones—the character refers to the condition as the ultimate in self-loathing. But the absence of conflict, the clumsiness of the mythic interludes, and a lot of unnecessary special pleading—the doctor not only repeats the “You make me laugh” line, but throws in “You have great courage and humanity” and “You are an extraordinary person”—end up making Welcome to My Rash seem more a literary pep talk than a play.

Third is stronger, partly because it makes its heroine a pill rather than a long-suffering saint. Professor Laurie Jameson (Grody again) has apparently been encountering little friction as she peddles a decidedly feminist reading of the daughterly dissonance in King Lear (“Goneril and Regan were right....Cordelia’s a whimpering weakling”) to her undergraduate lit classes. But student wrestler Woodson Bull III isn’t buying. As played by Boroevich, he’s bright and intellectually curious; he doesn’t fit the stereotype Jameson has of student athletes any more than her unorthodox reading of Lear fits his conventionally sensible notions of familial responsibility. When she accuses him of plagiarizing a paper, he’s indignant (“You have a problem with me because I’m normal”). After he defends it to a campus ethics committee, she starts to wonder if perhaps he’s right and she’s “jockified” him in much the same way she claims Lear “girlified” Cordelia.

Michael Barakiva’s straightforward staging allows each play to make a case for itself on designer James Kronzer’s angular blank slate of a stage. The performances are slightly artificial, with Grimmette’s pixieish doctor and Boroevich’s guileless wrestler the most persuasive of the bunch. Grody, whose curly locks and forthright manner mirror Wasserstein’s pretty effectively, is more engaging as an angry academic than as a hallucinating writer, but that may be because Third’s arguments about intellectual decline are more engaging than Rash’s musings on physical decline. CP

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