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The invaluable actor Bruce Nelson has been giving an impassioned curtain speech each night for the last couple of weeks over at Woolly Mammoth, where he’s performing in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s caustically farcical The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi. But he’s not pitching a charitable cause or pimping for the company’s next project. And he’s not waiting until the show’s conclusion to step to the footlights.

I’ll skip the specifics—no fair ruining one of the evening’s more delicious surprises—but it’s hardly giving away state secrets to reveal that one of Dürrenmatt’s fierce creatures will at one point or another break out of his play’s box and lunge at the audience for a desperate (and desperately comical) soliloquy on the playwright’s intentions.

Indeed, Nelson isn’t the first inhabitant of Mississippi to do so—though it’s a safe bet he’s the funniest. The unconventional dramaturgy begins pretty much at the beginning with a talking, tail-coated corpse, and in this fluid, stylized staging by Tom Prewitt, it progresses nicely in a fragmented flashback narrative that eventually reveals how the corpse—a communist rabble-rouser who’s misjudged the wrong justice minister—came to be in his unfortunate condition.

As it turns out, Mr. Mississippi isn’t about the corpse or his comrades so much as it is about the nature of some of the things that tend to create corpses (and comrades): political ambition and personal desire, unbending ideologies and conflicting personal moralities and the utter lack of either. Dürrenmatt sees all these irresistible forces with the objective and jaundiced eye of a Cold War-era intellectual, which is to say he sees them with equal parts shrewd perception, cold cynicism, reluctant despair, and a kind of tentative, embarrassed hope that matters aren’t as grim as his analysis seems to indicate.

Hope, because Nelson’s character, Count Bodo, an impoverished nobleman whose humiliations outnumber those of Job, seems to represent the playwright’s need to believe that the ennobling effects of individual connections—of love, if it can be put that way without sounding sentimental—can palliate the evils those other forces always seems to imply. Tentative and embarrassed, because he draws an explicit comparison between Count Bodo and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, closing the play with that observation and all its implications of noble failure.

Bodo and the corpse and their fellows, of course, aren’t real characters so much as representatives of the various regrettable human tendencies the playwright wants to examine, so never mind if their motivations aren’t always clearly delineated; this is theater that’s allegorical and absurdist in equal measure. Things seem to be set in some midsized, moderately stable European republic, the sort of place where a canny politician can become prime minister overnight. Most prominent among the characters forever stepping out of the play’s action to bark out their own stage directions or explain their innermost thoughts are Anastasia, the wealthy widow of a sugar-beet baron (Kerry Waters), and her eminently unsuitable suitor, a bloodthirsty public prosecutor with the unlikely name of Florestan Mississippi (Timmy Ray James).

She is almost entirely amoral; he’s an idealist who would take (and has taken) any step to institute the Law of Moses as the law of the land. There are murders and political plottings afoot, and it turns out that the offer Mississippi makes for Anastasia’s hand isn’t so much a proposal as a kind of punishment for crimes they’ve both committed, a social experiment on the most intimately domestic of scales: If he can reform her, he believes, he can in fact reform the world. Does it need saying that he can do neither?

Waters is a reliably interesting, quirky actress with a distinctive voice and visage, and she’s at her most deliciously gothic as Anastasia, swooning lavishly, milk-white skin against scarlet satin, as the comedy closes with a sharp veer toward tragedy. If the character seems somewhat passive despite all her machinations, it may not be Waters’ failing. Dürrenmatt describes Anastasia as “a woman who could be neither changed nor saved because she loved nothing but the moment,” which is intriguing to conceive of but probably tricky to depict in any kind of active fashion.

Ben Hulan makes the justice minister a cheerfully unscrupulous adult version of the callow, privileged youth he played earlier this season in Studio’s Last Night of Ballyhoo, which is to say he’s a charming rogue; with Gary Telles and Christopher Walker, he also moves smoothly through the self-consciously stagy, tongue-in-cheek choreography Prewitt has given to the mostly silent, Magritte-y trio of bowler-hatted Greek choristers who impersonate flounce-capped domestics, red-armbanded assassins, and other functionaries.

Kryztof Lindquist relishes his communist ideologue/former brothelkeeper part—relishes it perhaps a bit too much, in places, though he’s not quite chewing scenery. James, in the play’s title role, is something of a disappointment; Mississippi is the one character in Mississippi who needs to be convincingly human and convincingly conflicted, and James plays it all on the surface, opting for bluster and volume rather than subtlety.

But Nelson, in the play’s best-written part, makes himself very much at home as the evening’s emotional center, giving a performance of spiraling hysteria and sweet-natured vulnerability that’s easily the equal of his howlingly funny Harlequin in Washington Shakespeare Company’s Triumph of Love last season. There’s a point where, in the effort to explain the depths of his devotion to Anastasia, he runs down the catalog of afflictions he has suffered at least in part for her sake; Mississippi’s few weaknesses are entirely redeemed by the expression he puts on when he gets to “dysentery.”

Among the more interesting theatrical revelations of the last few months was the news that a John Kander/Fred Ebb musicalization of Dürrenmatt’s most famous play, The Visit, is being talked up as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, the Maggie Smith of the psychologically fraught tuner. The combination of smart play, smart adaptation, and smart performer might seem like a natural—but then look what happened with Kander & Ebb’s latest such outing, a musicalization of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth that met with decidedly mixed reaction at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

Still, ambitious failures tend at least to be energizing and fun to dissect—which is more than you can say about Signature’s current offering, a perfectly professional and entirely unexceptional mounting of Tell Me on a Sunday, the 70-minute-long “song” half of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance.

Let’s be fair: Signature is just coming off one major undertaking (Over & Over) and faces another (Angels in America) next on its schedule. An agreeable, easily digestible solo show, cheap to produce and simple to sell, makes sense from a strategic viewpoint. And the company’s design team has put up a polished, even beautiful, staging, while musical director John Kalbfleisch turns in his usual sterling work.

The production has a winning performer in Sherri Edelen. At several points, she gets to let her voice uncoil until it becomes that goose-bumping, hair-raising Broadway belt that all real musical junkies are constantly jonesing for.

But the material she’s putting all that charm and energy into is pure bilge; the elaborately inconsequential plot requires little more of the actress than the ability to wear a succession of increasingly ridiculous hats without openly appearing to feel like an idiot, and the surface agreeability of the plaintive title lament (and of the show’s other big hit, the delicate but utterly unnecessary “Unexpected Song”) can’t redeem the pedestrian pseudo-pop that constitutes the remainder of Lloyd Webber’s wretchedly repetitive sung-through score.

Is it worth pointing out that Edelen plays a British hat designer who comes to New York to pursue the first of several ill-advised love affairs from which she will learn the startling lesson that using people for pleasure is bad? Probably not; the piece is hardly about characterization or story.

But it could be worse. It could be Frank Wildhorn—and it could be a $60 ticket at the National Theatre. If you’re a Signature subscriber, you can probably afford to let your Sunday ticket go unredeemed. If you’re not, you can certainly afford to skip it.CP