Finding theater at the city’s edges: Three shows off the beaten path of D.C. stages

Thursday, 27 July 2017, 07:07:32 AM. From “Lady Day” to a Carly Mensch play, troupes nest where they can.

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Anya Randall Nebel as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” at the Anacostia Playhouse. (Michael DuBois )

Theater can offer great reckonings in little rooms, but first, emerging companies have to find suitable rooms to stage their work. Three shows beyond downtown, in a sort of inside-the-Beltway outer circle, are giving D.C. audiences a look at such material as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” sometimes well off the beaten path.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” The Anacostia Playhouse has kept busy since owner Adele Robey opened in 2013 on the hidden side street of Shannon Place SE. Theater Alliance is the resident troupe, but the Playhouse produces on its own as well.

“Lady Day” is the Playhouse’s staging of the late-career Billie Holiday concert drama, featuring Anya Randall Nebel. Holiday fans get to hear such tunes as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” interspersed with grim banter about the troubled singer’s hard life and times.

It has always been a downer of a show, catching Holiday in the throes of addiction, fueled by bitterness and sinking out of control in this small-club gig. Nebel sings and acts it well, though the effort to mimic Holiday’s bugle-bleat tone and slurred vowels is more distraction than asset.

The piano-bass-drums trio wasn’t fully in command as of opening night, but the nightclub ambiance is extremely inviting in the flexible, comfortable Playhouse.

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Rachel Barlaam and Russell Silber in Monumental Theatre’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” (RJ Pavel)

“Bonnie and Clyde.” The young Monumental Theatre Company makes a better case for itself than for this 2011 Broadway flop (music by Frank Wildhorn), which dully bangs an outsize American legend into ordinary show business. The instincts are good in this small-scale production, and Rachel Barlaam is notably assured as Bonnie Parker. She’s a singer with touch and style.

The venue? The Ainslie Arts Center on the campus of Alexandria’s Episcopal High School. It’s not far from Signature Theatre, the Tony Award-winning troupe that started in similar circumstances at the Gunston Arts Center (also a school space), and director Ryan Maxwell uses the small black-box space reasonably well. The seven-piece orchestra is visible through the rustic set’s wooden back wall, and the performers handle the folk-pop­gospel tunes passably.

Jana Bernard is vivid as Clyde’s sister-in-law, Blanche, and Russell Silber is a crooked-grinned country striver as Clyde — but Barlaam’s the one to watch. You wonder how Monumental might pull off a better grade of material.

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Jonathan Frye as Bernard and Ruthie Rado as Julie in Unexpected Stage Company’s production of “Oblivion.” (Rachel Ellis)

“Oblivion.” Unexpected Stage Company made its sturdiest impression so far by snagging Deb Margolin’s solo “8 Stops.” That was staged at Round House Theatre’s old home in a county building in Wheaton; now comes Carly Mensch’s religion-themed “Oblivion” in a church meeting room at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

Mensch is an accomplished TV writer-producer whose credits include “Weeds,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Nurse Jackie” and “GLOW.” Her dialogue flows naturally in this four-character plot about a high-schooler named Julie (a charming and willful Ruthie Rado) who turns to Christianity as her parents’ marriage hits a bad patch.

It’s good to see more thoughtful new American plays on religion, from Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” and “The Who and the What” to Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians.” “Oblivion” is not that rigorously focused, though. It’s largely a marital/family drama, and on that front it can be frustrating.

Audience members could be seen shaking their heads in disgust at the lame moral arguments of the unemployed, undisciplined father, Dixon (Zach Brewster-Geisz), who thinks he’s “relatable” but is so skeevy that he writes soft porn and smokes pot with his daughter’s friend Bernard. The show’s only really probing dialogue comes during a brief mother-daughter reconciliation as the skeptical Pam (Mindy Shaw) tries to understand Julie’s sudden faith.

The naturalistic, slightly comic acting suits Mensch’s writing, with Jonathan Frye giving a quirky, funny performance as the teen filmmaker Bernard (who has his own deity in the late movie critic Pauline Kael). “Oblivion” is certainly appropriate in this small church meeting room, but it’s hardly a space for all seasons. You have to believe this stage is just a phase.

If you go Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. 202-290-2328.

Dates: Through Aug. 6.

Tickets: $30-$40.

Bonnie & Clyde

Ainslie Arts Center on the campus of Episcopal High School, 3900 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria.

Dates: Through July 31.

Tickets: $30.


River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 6301 River Rd., Bethesda. 301-337-8290.

Dates: Through Aug. 6.

Tickets: $10.

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