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The Smell of Kill and Inherit the Wind 

Plus: TopDog/ Underdog; Doubt

The Smell of the Kill
Theatre in the Park
Through Feb. 17;

It's been said many times and in many ways: Nothing is sweeter than revenge. But in Michele Lowe's black comedy The Smell of the Kill, the revenge enacted on three middle-aged, misogynistic men by their wives is so sweet it's cloying.

The play, nestling itself neatly into the ladies-who-lunch bitchfest paradigm, tells the tale of three suburban housewives, all of whom are disenchanted with their testosterone-addled husbands. The whole of the tale is set in a suburban dream kitchen with a stainless steel fridge, gleaming marble countertops and a meat locker. Yes, a meat locker: The ladies—sharp-tongued Nicky (Lynda Clark), infinitely devoted Debra (Carole Marcotte) and seemingly demure, ditzy Molly (Fran Dilts Wescott)—are forced to face the ultimate moral decision when their husbands trap themselves in that most essential of household amenities after a reunion dinner. By the time the men have formed their first goose bumps (about halfway through the 80-minute play), the audience is already well aware of each man's sins: Nicky's husband has been indicted for embezzlement, Debra's hubby seduces other women and Molly's man is attentive everywhere but in bed.

These issues carry enough weight to sustain a play, even if they are typical male vs. female fodder. But rather than assembling these materials for a play of extreme moral reasoning, Lowe's script takes the route of comic frivolity. By the time the final judgment is made, the bite of satire has vanished to be replaced by mindless sitcom fluff.

Still, despite its shortcomings, this production does offer several bright performances: Clark shines with wit and strength as Nicky and Dilts Wescott turns dimwitted Molly into a soulful character with an added ounce of charisma. Dynamite direction by Eric Carl fills the stage with enough punchy dialogue and movement to make things interesting. Just don't expect this play to turn into the grisly murder piece its title promises. —Kathy Justice

Inherit the Wind
Burning Coal Theatre
Through Feb. 17;

Considering that this Scopes-trial warhorse famously features a face-off between fictictious versions of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, it's ironic that its biggest difficulty lies in the leads: David Dossey and David Henderson give undeniably robust performances, and both also appear somewhere between 10 and 20 years too young for their roles.

Although the role of Rachel, the daughter of the town's hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, is obscured by the rhetorical thunder of the male protagonists, it is the most difficult part in the show. Jenn Suchanec conveyed the doubts and fears in this thankless role with grace. In a harrowing mid-show prayer meeting, Bob Galbraith's work as Rachel's father runs the risk of going way over the top. Those familiar with the old-time religion however, will recognize its authenticity. —Byron Woods

TopDog/ Underdog
Playmakers Rep
Through March 2;

Definitely not to be missed, Topdog/ Underdog is the sharp, exhilarating story of two brothers named Lincoln and Booth—their father's idea of a joke, we're told. Together they pair off into an alternately loving and threatening tango, bearing testament to the luck of the draw as two black men, abandoned by their parents and captivated by the con game three-card monte.

Here, Brandon Dirden (Booth) and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lincoln) deserve equal merit for this two-hander set entirely in Booth's one-room apartment. Due to its Seuss-like, almost painstakingly clear rhythmic phrasing, Henderson's delivery feels masked and therefore unpredictable, which makes Lincoln's web of emotions all the more intense and engaging. Dirden's portrayal of Booth's more transparent character has the deft range of a saxophone, exploding and soothing side by side, working in harmony with the "rep and rev" strategy Suzan-Lori Parks adopts from jazz in her plays. And, like jazz artists, each member of the artistic crew produces shining solo work that manages to coalesce into a dynamic piece. —Megan Stein

Playmakers Rep
Through Feb. 29,

John Patrick Shanley's 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning play features Julie Fishell as Sister Aloysius, a Catholic school principal in the Bronx who suspects a parish priest of sex abuse. But if she surprises us by observing, "In pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God," by the end of this harrowing descent we have seen the proof firsthand.

Though Fishell's Aloysius is a character-based concerto, under Drew Barr's direction she does occasionally lean too hard on certain notes and volumes. Jeffrey Blair Cornell is positive and subtle as the suspected priest Father Flynn; and the conflict between the two builds commendable force. Variable accents inconvenience them at times, along with supporting actors Janie Brookshire and Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Brookshire appeals as Sister James, a younger nun struggling to keep her ideals, while Hunter-Williams convinces as a schoolboy's mother immersed in the inner-city realities of the early 1960s. —Byron Woods


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