“I wish there was some little phobia you could gnaw on,” says Liza Elliott to her psychiatrist in a constricted voice that only hints at the phobic feast awaiting audiences in Lady in the Dark. It’s a Moss Hart line if ever one existed—snappy, action-verbed, urbane—and in a more conventional musical, it would doubtless lead to a song packed with oral-gratification puns.

Lady in the Dark, though, is anything but conventional. Tailored by Hart, composer Kurt Weill, and lyricist Ira Gershwin as a 1941 vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, the show was, as American Century Theater’s uneven but fascinating revival quickly establishes, a trailblazer that had the misfortune to blaze a trail no one else took.

The show was the eccentric byproduct of Hart’s experience with his analyst and the fact that each of its authors stood at a creative crossroads in the early 1940s. Hart had been struggling for some time to succeed in a collaboration that did not involve George S. Kaufman, Weill was just emerging from Brecht’s shadow after emigrating to the U.S., and Gershwin was working on his first major project since the death of his brother George. None of them were particularly interested in doing what everyone expected of them. So together, they decided to invent a new form…or, at any rate, a new format. Hart called Lady in the Dark a “musical play,” but it might more accurately be described as a play that intermittently erupts into sung fantasies.

Its structure hangs on the nonmusical visits paid by a severely tailored, obviously distressed Liza to her analyst. Describing herself as utterly contented—both with her work as editor of a leading fashion magazine and with her relationship with a married man whose wife refuses to divorce him— she’s at a loss to explain her jangling nerves, which have left her in a “constant state of panic and anxiety.” Her only clue to the cause of her distress is that for the first time in years, a singsong melody from her childhood has been running through her head.

“Hum what you remember of it,” says the good doctor. And she does, in a mournful, otherworldly trill.

Now, think back for a moment to the year before Rodgers and Hammerstein rewrote the rules for musical comedy in Oklahoma! and try to imagine the impact this opening must have had on audiences. They’d come to see Lawrence in what was widely billed as the most sumptuously mounted musical extravaganza since Showboat. They had been greeted with no overture at all, but a 10-minute dramatic scene filled with psychobabble that suggested they’d stumbled into some sort of modernist, cross-dressed Hamlet. And now, instead of a splashy production number, the composer was serving up an eerie, wordless melody.

Stephen Sondheim can get away with this sort of thing today, but at a time when most Broadway musicals were loosely plotted, vaudeville-like revues with titles like No, No, Nanette and Yes, Yes, Yvette, the opening moments of Lady in the Dark qualified as heresy of a pretty tall order. Actually, so did the rest of the show, which mixed giddily entertaining, musical neurosis fantasies (that invariably ended badly for the heroine) with brightly comic scenes from Liza’s workplace and starkly dramatic sessions with her analyst. Only in the show’s final moments do all three of these stylistic threads snap together. Hardly showbiz as usual, either before or after the R&H revolution.

Still, the audience went along, and the show was a smash for close to two years on Broadway and another year on the road, earning a fortune for its producers and launching the careers of Danny Kaye (for whom the Act 2 patter number “Tschaikowsky,” became a signature song) and Victor Mature (who played the handsome but slightly dim movie star both on stage and in real life). As the title character, Lawrence was generally viewed as irreplaceable, though her singing was never regarded by the creators as more than passable. A standing joke was that she was one of the few vocalists around who could sing both sharp and flat on the same note. Fortunately, star power counted for a lot in shows of this era, and she had it in spades.

The problem with mounting Lady in the Dark today is that stage stars of Lawrence’s magnitude don’t exist anymore, so it’s hard to find someone to anchor a major revival. And unless a show is reproduced on a grand scale every so often, it tends to slip off the small-theater radar screen. Being a legendary smash didn’t do Lady much good once Oklahoma! had led the rest of musical theater off in another direction. (Vagrant thought: Had Sondheim been around in 1941 to write Follies, his dark 1971 musical that used songs in a similarly oblique manner to illustrate mood and motivation rather than to advance the plot, might the development of musical comedy have proceeded down expressionist rather than operetta-based lines?)

In any event, with no original-cast album to document how Weill’s lovely score had originally been interpreted, the show slowly faded from the repertory. A press packet put out by the Kurt Weill Foundation mentions not one U.S. production between 1965 and 1989, and only two since then (both with four-performance runs).

Which suggests that American Century Theater’s imaginative-on-a-budget production should probably be regarded as required viewing by anyone with more than a passing interest in the history and development of the Broadway musical. Gunston Theatre II may not be the ideal spot for a 30-character show requiring production fullness and a 17-piece pit band, but frankly, if an opportunity to hear a Weill score this terrific in its original dramatic context comes along only once every 57 years or so, it’s foolish to quibble over production niceties.

Which is not to suggest that Jack Marshall’s brazenly energetic staging is seriously lacking in them. While not as polished as Signature Theatre’s excursions into Sondheim, ACT’s Lady in the Dark is mostly as well-executed as it is ambitious. And because it can’t really go in for spectacle in such intimate quarters, it has the added perk of letting contemporary audiences see the mechanics of a show that was built around a very specific set of talents—those of superstar Lawrence and newcomer Kaye.

Maureen Kerrigan and Jason Gilbert appear unfazed by the unenviable task of following in their footsteps. Gilbert, wide-eyed and loose-limbed in the manner of a New Age vaudevillean, manages to be a certifiable hoot in every scene he graces, whether rattling off the names of 50 Russian composers in 60 seconds in “Tschaikowsky” or fussing with fey abandon over the pants worn by Tom Manger’s amusingly Eastwood-like Hollywood hunk. Kerrigan is best when she’s most reined in—superbly still for her dramatic scenes, which are genuinely unnerving—but she’s also primly in command of comic scenes. Perhaps because of all the control she must display in these straight-play sections, though, she tends to overcompensate a bit when allowed to cut loose in musical numbers. Choreographer Sherry Chriss has her selling her big song, “(The Saga of) Jenny,” with such constant shimmying that by the second chorus, it’s astonishing that she still has breath enough to sing.

The supporting performers who populate Liza’s office are all amusing, as are Bernard Engel’s faintly unctuous shrink and the unicycling juggler (no kidding) who enlivens the Act 2 circus fantasy. And they all look splendid in the sinuous gowns, dapper tuxes, and gaudy clown suits in which Edu. Bernardino has attired them. Hal Crawford’s multilevel setting is admirably restrained and thus one up on the pit band, which, on opening night was both overloud and underrehearsed, hardly an ideal combination. Still, the musical elements will no doubt acquire polish as the run progresses.

Even in their current state, though, they’ll prove revelatory for observers who, like me, have listened, utterly mystified, to the unsatisfying studio cast album of Lady in the Dark Columbia put together in the ’60s. Disengaged from their surroundings, the three long musical sections Weill and Gershwin created for Liza’s fantasies sound decidedly peculiar. They’re not so much songs as snappy, showbiz-savvy, 20-minute mini-operas, and without Hart’s dialogue to explain where they’re coming from, they feel pointless and enervating. In context, though, they not only make excellent sense, they empower and enlarge the show’s exploration of shrinkdom and the analytic method. The Freudian elements of the show are bound to seem slightly silly today, since we’ve internalized notions that were newfangled and widely misunderstood when the show first opened. But with the musical sequences stylizing those ideas, they’re given a sort of expressionist distance, which is intriguing not merely because of what it suggests about the sophistication of prewar Broadway audiences, but also because it makes it easy, even after a half-century of neglect, to understand why the critical community went so gaga over Lady in the Dark at its premiere.

“Let’s call it a work of theater art,” said the New York Times.

Yes, let’s.

If ever a prop has summed up a production, it’s the table-sized world globe that sits in one corner of Washington Stage Guild’s The Rules of the Game. It has the honeyed, amber look of a Renaissance antique, and it seems perfectly suited to its opulent Victorian surroundings, especially when a character strides over and gives it a quick spin.

Then he pops it open, revealing a full bar inside.

Luigi Pirandello’s early playlet, about marital games and those who play them too seriously, also hides something unexpected. It begins as a bright little comedy of manners in which a neglected wife burbles to her lover about her husband Leone’s annoying habit of doing precisely what she wishes—what everyone wishes, actually. As played by Bill Largess, Leone is so willing to accommodate others that he has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an influence in his relationships.

But all is not quite as bright and brittle as this scenario suggests. Leone’s wife, Silia (Laura Giannarelli), is being driven mad by what she sees as his passive aggression. And his best friend, Guido (Jeff Baker), who has slipped somewhat guiltily into Leone’s bed, is becoming slowly aware that he’s now in the middle of a minefield.

“I’ve chosen a defense,” Leone tells him, none too reassuringly, “rooted

in despair.”

This is the show that the actors are rehearsing in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and it’s a nifty little trifle. The play’s first half establishes the central triangle and allows the characters to banter brightly as they try to figure out the rules of the game they’re playing. Then the second half lowers the boom on them.

Steven Carpenter’s in-the-round staging is brisk, efficient, decently acted, and handsomely mounted, though it can’t entirely counter the impression that even in so short a play—the evening clocks in at about an hour and three quarters, with intermission—Pirandello was mostly marking time. This may be because the author didn’t have much left to say about the games of life and marriage after having said so much a year earlier in Right You Are If You Say You Are. Or it may just be because he was feeling glib. Whatever. What is said is certainly clever enough to keep audiences occupied through the fadeout, if not to supply them with much to discuss afterward. CP