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Sam Mendes’ radically raunchy re-invention of Cabaret bumps and grinds and grins a suggestive grin; the Kit Kat Girls gyrate and the orchestra vamps a musical insinuation and the sleek German men grope each other when they’re not busy groping their female friends—and at the center of it all, a leering, lascivious Emcee with sequins on his nipples and a bold red swastika on his ass tells us that life is just one outrageous orgy.

But he’s wrong, and so is anyone who tells you that this insidiously ingratiating entertainment, with its happily sordid shadow-play and its raw rendition of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s peerless score, is concerned merely with sex and excess. That grind is the grind of poverty, those songs are more like whistles past the graveyard, and that grin is a death’s-head. This Cabaret may look and sound an awful lot like fun, but at its very heart it’s about fear—the way fear drives us to drink and dance the dark night away—and, as Roger Copeland has convincingly argued in an American Theatre magazine essay, about the risks to a society in which everyone’s too busy dancing to notice whether that encroaching blackness is dark night or dark times.

In Weimar Germany at the tail end of the ’20s, money and hope are in short supply, but the liquor and the drugs and the people who like them are cheap and plentiful enough to numb the pain—and the politics are still just confused enough that only the clearest of heads can decipher what’s written on the wall. What makes this production brilliant rather than just perceptive is the way Mendes implicates his audience in that situation, draws it in, and makes it laugh, then stops that laughter dead with the sound of the bolts slamming home. If politics and personal struggles are both just amusements, he asks, who’s watching the store while you’re watching the show?

The show on stage at the Warner Theatre trades heavily in desperation; William Ivey Long’s thrift-shop costumes, Rob Marshall’s deliberately frayed choreography, and Randy Houston Mercer’s heroin-chic makeup emphasize the demoralizing effect of the harsh Weimar economics even more clearly than I remember from Broadway.

More crucially, Mendes strips every shred of glamour from the story’s heroine. His Sally Bowles—the two-bit cabaret chanteuse and party girl who talks her way into an American novelist’s affairs and affections—is not the flaky-but-fabulous creature created by Liza Minnelli and Bob Fosse in the Oscar-winning film; as inhabited by Natasha Richardson on Broadway and by a surprisingly effective Teri Hatcher here, she’s a wasted figure with the startled, glassy eyes of an addict. Hooked on her illusions as much as on the substances that help her sustain them, she’s struggling mightily to keep it all together; it’s a fight that goes on to the bitter finish, when her scorched-earth rendition of the title song makes it clear that if her life is a cabaret, it’s only because she can’t manage to make it anything more substantial.

(And for all the talk about how Mendes has consciously cast nonsingers in the part, I defy you to be anything less than riveted by Hatcher’s ferocious rendition of that oh-so-familiar number: her blistering defiance, her white-knuckled grip on the microphone stand, the tremor that makes her rail-thin frame seem all the more brittle aren’t there to cover for missing notes.)

Mendes’ nervy, distinctively ’90s production is a hybrid of the stage original and the Fosse movie that develops ideas from both more fully than ever; songs from the film and the ’80s Broadway revival (“Money,” “I Don’t Care Much”) are spliced seamlessly in to underscore the story’s universality, and revisions to staging and book make it much clearer that Cliff (Rick Holmes, perhaps too assured for an essentially diffident character) is gay—an approach that actually makes Sally, who seduces him utterly, all the more compelling a figure.

Norbert Leo Butz’s seductively sinister Emcee, with his mocking little Hitler jokes and his playful pansexual appeal, is the pervasive metaphor that draws the audience in and drives Mendes’ message home. The director’s reconceptualization weaves him more thoroughly into the action than before; where earlier versions of the character helped bridge the transitions between book scenes and musical numbers on the Kit Kat Klub stage, Mendes’ Emcee actually seems to help shape the action, or at least our perception of it. He’s always there, observing, offering silent sardonic commentary, tugging at the other characters’ strings, a persona somewhere between storyteller and superhuman Other—until the production’s shattering final image throws all his laughter back in his face. Butz takes a role that was developed—triumphantly—for and by the intensely idiosyncratic Alan Cumming and makes it every bit his own; if his version is less fey, less impish, more overtly seditious, it’s still a rousing success.

Both stars, in fact, are as effective as anyone could ask them to be—which is saying a great deal indeed in the wake of a Broadway production so flawlessly cohesive that many thought it couldn’t survive the departure of Richardson and Cumming. Critics have been divided on how well their replacements have measured up, of course, but Butz and Hatcher make a convincing argument that Mendes’ concept is sturdy enough to accommodate just about anyone who’s committed to his vision of the show. Other performers acquit themselves beautifully in lesser roles, too, especially Jeanine Morick as the sailor-happy whore Fraulein Kost and Barbara Andres as Fraulein Schneider, the rooming-house matron whose nascent love for a Jewish shopkeeper (amiable veteran Dick Latessa) is poisoned by the rise of the Nazis in Act 2.

If there’s anything that detracts from the visceral impact of this Cabaret, it’s that the production, conceived for intimate spaces, may feel a degree too broad when played as expansively as it must be in a house the size of the Warner. That’s a serious concern: If, in selling the show to the balcony, Butz’s come-ons begin to seem gratuitous—if the sneers of the Kit Kat girls begin to look studied and Cliff’s clinch with Bobby the Aryan chorus boy seems like something thrown in the audience’s face—all Mendes’ work begins to unravel. It wasn’t just a gimmick when he sat audiences in London and Manhattan at cafe tables and set cast members loose among them; above all else, this production succeeds by making audience members complicit in its blind, brutal revels.

But even a broad reading of this Cabaret is a meatier musical theater experience than most of what you’ll see in a lifetime of 8 o’clock curtains. When a 33-year-old score and a 66-year-old story can still make your hair stand on end, somebody’s doing something very right. Mendes, who was busy being born when Kander & Ebb were busy polishing the first production, makes that unmistakable theatrical magic happen at least three times by my count—and that, I’d say, is answer enough to any critic’s quibbles.

To Pam Gems, the artist is the one who frees us, the one whose overriding desire, whose impulse to seek, makes our less imaginative efforts somewhat less futile. We’re the people “trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet they seek to soar, and [the artist] makes that seem so very possible.”

Of course, the speaker of that line is an artist herself, so a little skepticism is perhaps in order. Nonetheless, the idea that great talent sets people apart—morally as well as creatively—is one that gets a good deal of attention in Gems’ intricate and often infuriating play Stanley. The play itself is just one part of a multifaceted look at the personal politics of art-making being staged at Olney Theatre Center by the reliably intriguing people of the Potomac Theatre Project.

On alternate nights, it’s the playwright-turned-politico Vaclav Havel who gets dissected, in a series of his plays bookended by short works by Beckett and Pinter. (Fellow Washington City Paper critic Bob Mondello assessed that assessment last week.) On the main stage, in Olney’s own production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, it’s an offbeat South African woman who began a curious career in naive folk art at age 50, confounding neighbors and confronting racial politics as she went.

In Stanley, it’s the title character—the Englishman Stanley Spencer, painter of subjects religious and erotic, knighted not long before his death in 1959—whose pursuit of the muse (and of other, possibly less exalted ends) is at issue. The petty sexual and artistic politics of his life are perhaps less universally immediate and affecting than those explored in PTP’s other outings, but his is a sufficiently knotty story to make for a challenging exercise in dramatism. That PTP finds the challenge more than it can quite master says more about the play than about the company, which gets at least a B for effort.

What comes with artistic genius? What license does it bring? In ’90s America, it takes three or four strikes before a Robert Downey Jr. gets more than a wrist-slap for blatantly illegal behavior. In England earlier this century, Spencer played similarly selfish games with his wife’s affection and his society’s expectations, and his peers likewise looked away because of his talent and his fame.

Take away his gifts, and Spencer becomes merely a perversity who deludes himself with childishly simple ideas about spirituality and sexuality. Who wheedles his wife’s permission for an affair with a woman who wants him for what he can do for her career. Who’s so blithely narcissistic that he can ask that same wife, after he’s callously ditched and divorced her, to live as his mistress while his second wife bleeds his bank accounts and bars him from her bed. (She’s come to the marriage with her own baggage, it turns out—most of it carried dutifully for her by her female lover.) It’s what he neeeds, after all, and he’s the genius.

It’s difficult to see, in Cheryl Faraone’s thoughtful but ultimately unmoving production, how anyone could make Spencer seem anything other than the worst kind of self-involved shit, but apparently it’s been done. Alan Wade, the gifted actor who last lost a wrestling match with amorality in PTP’s Good last summer, makes a valiant effort here, but he’s hampered by, among other things, an unbalanced supporting cast and an extraordinarily unfortunate wig. His Stanley is an energetic and sometimes engaging character, but in no way is he the sort of irresistibly charismatic personality who could get away with the kind of foolishness that plays out onstage.

Helen Hedman, also a victim of wretched wiggery, manages to be intermittently moving as Spencer’s wife, the long-suffering Hilda, though it’s not her permanently pained expression but her well-earned anger (once she’s finally had enough) that gives the evening what spark it has. Lee Mikeska Gardner, as the interloping lesbian painter-wannabe who wrecks Hilda’s home in order to secure one for herself, makes Patricia a far more self-conscious manipulator than would seem ideal; the character’s breathtaking brand of nerve seems more like the kind that comes by instinct than the kind that comes by design. And the actress is far too obviously aware of her own body and its language; even the sexually intoxicated Stanley would have stopped to wonder why Patricia’s seductive attitudes seemed so studied, had their scenes together played out so stiffly in real life.

PTP’s supporting cast is, as usual, a mix of experience and relative innocence, with seasoned local actors sharing the stage with newly fledged thesps from the Middlebury College theater program. Both types contribute moments of awkwardness and moments that resonate; worth noting are Julie-Ann Elliott, as Patricia’s essentially decent but emotionally compromised lover, and Andrew Smith, who in a moment of naked, angry confession drives home the idea that Stanley’s gifts make his failings both irrelevant and all the more infuriating.

Assuming an ideally realized performance in each of Gems’ roles, assuming a production that had the wherewithal to wow the audience with the impact of Spencer’s art (perhaps a dramatically bigger, bolder set of projections than the one PTP is able to deploy?), assuming more directorial attention to and audience understanding of the peculiarly British class issues that seem to be an integral part of the story—well, Stanley would still be a stiff row, if one that might ultimately be worth the effort.

But give the company credit for tackling a play that doesn’t present simple situations, that doesn’t say there are simple answers. PTP’s ambition is always impressive, so it seems uncharitable to complain too loudly when what’s on its stage isn’t quite as interesting as what’s on its mind. CP