“You’re entering a house of worship,” says the elevator operator who takes patrons up to the third-floor loft at Studio Theatre where Edwin Sánchez’s Clean is performed nightly. And sure enough, there’s organ music playing as the doors open, and the stage platforms have been arranged in the shape of a cross.

But there are also a bed and a bathtub tucked into corners of the space, which suggest that what’s being worshiped in this warmly offbeat comedy is nonsecular in nature. Sánchez begins his story with a stolen baseball cap. The thief is a 10-year-old Nuyorican boy named Gustavito (Maurice Tscherny), and he is so obviously taken with the young priest who is his confessor that you instantly suspect he stole the cap so he’d have something to confess.

The priest (Tim Marrone) doesn’t understand the depths of the boy’s affection at first, but when Gustavito’s older brother, Junior (Jaime Robert Carrillo), starts threatening to kill him if he lays a finger on the lad, he belatedly clues in. Junior is, himself, a bit confused about love, as well he might be. His father, Kiko Delgado (a sturdy Luis Caram), is no role model, having married two of three Puerto Rican sisters, and then brought the third, Mercy (Claudia Torres), to live with him in Brooklyn when the others left. Domestic matters in the Delgado household are further complicated by the fact that this third sister has now fallen for a drag queen named Norry (a flamboyant Andy Torres), for whom she is sewing a wedding dress. And Norry just might love her back. Who wouldn’t be confused?

The soap-opera potential in a plot line like this is considerable, but the playwright has a deftly comic way with dialogue—”The problem is that she’s a she,” says Norry on realizing he’s fallen for Mercy, “and we’re not even the same size”—and director José Carrasquillo a light touch. Which is a good thing, since the material leaps from melodrama to skit comedy to a sort of spiritually heightened realism without batting a heavily mascara’d eye. If not played with Almodovarian bravado, the whole enterprise would curdle pretty quickly. At Studio, as the complications accumulate over a span of eight years, the evening instead grows lighter and fluffier.

Let’s note that the lightness requires a certain leap of faith on the part of audiences. Clean posits a world in which there can be a love so pure and innocent between a small child and an authority figure as to be beyond question. Real-world concerns are bound to crop up, however, when that world is made physical on stage. The sight of a real 10-year-old professing his adoration for a conflicted 35-year-old priest would doubtless be troubling. The sight of Tscherny and Marrone (actors who both look to be in their 20s) playing those roles is considerably less so. Carrasquillo’s brightly comic staging sensibly takes other precautions to ensure that the evening, which won its playwright a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award in 1995, has more in common with Beautiful Thing than it does with Lolita.

The director is aided by a terrific, largely Latino acting ensemble. Especially fine are Tscherny, who makes Gustavito as spirited as he is childishly seductive, and Carrillo, whose growth from adolescent bigot to sweetly foolish adult Lothario is perhaps the most gratifying of this warm-hearted evening’s many transformations.

Arena Stage’s revival of the Marx Brothers comedy Animal Crackers delivers everything you expect and then some. And then some more.

This antic, extravagantly designed, deco-times-12 production is, as you may have heard, Doug Wager’s re-creation of the 1928 stage musical on which the popular Marx Brothers movie was based. First presented in 1982 at Arena and since performed in dozens of venues nationally, the reconstituted Animal Crackers was initially as much an archival as a theatrical feat. The orchestrations for the Burt Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs had been lost. The dialogue had to be pieced together from movie transcripts and scattered pages from the collections of authors George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. And whereas most of the jokes were written down somewhere, the physical business that had made the Marx Brothers Broadway’s most anarchic cutups was only hinted at in the scraps of paper left behind after the original production closed.

Under the circumstances, it’s probably a good thing that in the ’20s, producers tended to serve up elaborate stage banquets, and the Brothers Marx weren’t even the main course in this one. Audiences wanted their $2.20 worth, which meant there were romances and spectacle galore, not to mention tap-dancing choruses, historical pageants, and a novelty number or two. The show may seem inconceivable without the Marxian presence—and Arena has obligingly re-created them in the neat impersonations of Frank Ferrante (Groucho), Jerold Goldstein (Chico), Les Marsden (Harpo), and Neal Mayer (Zeppo)—but it’s the shifting of gears that keeps things rolling. Without the structure of the musical’s plot, there’d be nothing for the Marxes to break apart.

I remember the 1982 revival as feeling revelatory and rather sweet. The current revival feels higher-powered, as if Wager had decided in the interim that the romantic portions of the show should carry their own share of comedy, rather than leaving the laughs entirely to Groucho and his pals. Thus, a romantic ballad called “Watching the Clouds Roll By” is sung by a chorus in cloud mittens and hats, and a snooty butler (Ralph Cosham at his battiest) gets an S&M thing going with one of the party guests (the imperiously randy Brigid Cleary).

By and large, this democratizing of the comedy doesn’t change a thing. You still wait for Ferrante’s insanely animated Groucho to insult his dowager hostess, for Goldstein’s pun-crazed Chico to shoot the piano keys, and for Marsden’s faintly feral Harpo to hand his leg to passers-by and drop an impossible amount of cutlery from his coat.

They do, and you exit walking on air.

In director Tim Shaw’s goofily engaging staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia wears a poodle skirt, the leading men sport high school letter jackets, the gods grease their hair, Bottom dances to Sinatra tunes, and Puck is a…uh, fairy. As in, he likes boys. The other fairies like hula hoops, jitterbugging, and plastic squirt guns filled with love potions.

I can’t say advance word on any of this tomfoolery sounded terribly promising, but having seen how it all works out on stage, I have to concede that Shaw knows what he’s doing. After a brief sock-hop sequence that suggests he’s going to turn A Midsummer Night’s Dream into an episode of Happy Days, he opts for an interpretation of the play that’s equally period-specific, but more interesting. Call it ’50s Ways to Leave Your Lover.

Shakespeare’s plot, you may recall, has to do with mismatched sweethearts chasing one another through a sprite-infested forest. Lysander and Demetrius both love Hermia, much to Helena’s dismay. She carries a torch for Demetrius and foolishly thinks that by telling him the other two are eloping, she’ll win his affections. Oberon’s attempts to put things right with a little magic only complicate matters. Also wandering in the woods is an inept drama troupe that wants to produce The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, but that has its rehearsals disrupted when its Pyramus gets turned into an ass by one of the sprites.

Didn’t happen at your high school? Well, put everybody in jeans and T-shirts, mix in tunes like “Stupid Cupid” and “Chapel of Love,” and it feels surprisingly right somehow—despite the fact that most of the folks assembled for this joint mounting by Keegan Theatre and New Dominion Shakespeare Festival are a bit long of tooth to be worrying about classes, cliques, and crushes.

That said, their performances are mostly capable, and in a few instances much better than that. Best of all is Eric Lucas’ barely-in-the-closet Puck, who wears leather with campy assurance and works deliriously fey variations on the greaser attitude that goes with it. Lucas is also terrific in Rocky Horror Riff Raff drag in a smaller role.

In their romantic pursuit of Helena and Hermia (pert, pouty cheerleaders as played by Sheri S. Herren and Kara Jackson), Chris Stezin and Colby Codding are sweetly single-minded and appropriately athletic. Not for nothing did they earn those letters on their sweaters, you say to yourself as they plunge headlong across the stage into clinches and fistfights. And though the director doesn’t milk as many laughs from the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes as might be expected—possibly because he’s getting so much low comedy already from his sprites and lovers—the company’s Thisbe (Steve Wannall in geek glasses and hiked-up jeans that reveal a good three inches of white sock) is still a nifty comic creation.

Heather Dineen’s costumes give everyone a head start on character types, while the rest of the design work is spare enough to allow room in fairly cramped quarters for all manner of physicality, including a couple of musical-comedy-style production numbers Shaw has cooked up. Let’s note that while the director’s concept works in general, patrons intent on maintaining a Grease-y nostalgic view of ’50s innocence may need to close their ears to a few problematic plot points. Probably best not to spend too much time dwelling on why, for instance, that leather-jacketed greaser, Oberon, is so interested in spiriting away a little boy his girlfriend Titania has been keeping from him. Dream is the word, after all.CP

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