Poetic Just Us: Connell and Sekou fight rhyme.
Poetic Just Us: Connell and Sekou fight rhyme.

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At the outset of Signature Theater’s high-energy world-premiere talkfest The Word Begins, poetry slammers Steve Connell and Sekou (tha misfit) shout out a kind of mission statement: “Tonight we take back the word.” And although that’s a pretty tall order—the stage’s birthright being language, as it were—they have a decently high time delivering on it.

Words genuinely flood from these two—in streams, deluges, tsunamis—whether they’re remembering childhood fantasies (“sharks in the carpet”) or chronicling a 20th century legacy of destruction (“olive branches dipped in blood”). Fierce champions of expression, they’re not at all apologetic about what they do (“a poet staying silent is blasphemy”), and they’re happy to encourage free-association in others, especially if it leads to replacing greeting card tropes with sentiment of a more homegrown sort (“skin smooth as my teeth feel to my tongue right after I brushed ’em”).

As this range of subject matter suggests, the performers take a broad view of their mandate. Taking back the word will involve taking the word in as many directions as possible, and Robert Egan’s staging finds a variety of formats to channel the term torrent that gets unleashed in the process. The director conjures a Real Talk reality show to deal with the language of sex and imagines a boxing match to explore the lexicon of race (Connell is white, Sekou black). He backs his performers with images of everything from snowball-like flowers to the Columbine massacre (Michael Clark’s projections on nine floating TV sets in Myung Hee Cho’s spare setting) as Adam Phalen’s sound design envelops them in cheers, jeers, and Cirque du Soleil-ish doodlings.

But mostly, Egan just lets his performers have their expansive say, and when what they’re saying is playful, which is much of the time, the evening is enormous fun. Their impersonations of characters representing a range of fiercely myopic attitudes about race is at once telling and explosively funny. And a sequence in which they advocate creating a “beige” world through interracial sex—they want to start right this minute, in the theater, with women in the audience—is a natural crowd-pleaser.

When their text turns more serious, it can be wrenching—a catalog of atrocities spat out in one long, looping spiel—but let the talk turn to relationships, and things get preachy pretty quickly. In fairness, there’s a bit of the preacher in any poet, and the sermonizing here is comparatively easy on the psyche—“make love, not a mess” is the general drift—as they take on everything from hip-hop’s denigration of women to the false piety of Bible-thumpers (“people who find God in a book but leave Him there every time they close it”).

Still, the evening is at its most engaging when Connell and Sekou appear to be free-associating, topping each other in overlapping linguistic arcs as they link, say, Guantanamo to the Jena Six, or Anne Frank to the Underground Railroad. Morphing from predatory gangster to Afrocentric scholar, Sekou (who once attended the Duke Ellington School for the Arts) is sly and subtle; Connell mocks bigotry with a grin, then hardens his stare and becomes eerily unnerving.

At 100 minutes, the show needs pruning, and Egan would be well-advised to cut with an eye to toughening the overall effect. Riffing on the “radioactive” nature of words, Sekou and Connell are on solid ground; when they start talking about wooing their ladies with candles, that ground quickly turns to mush. If you take back the word to say something conventional, after all, what’s the point?

My memories of the Bethesda Theatre mostly have to do with giant lizards, ants, and spiders—outsize creatures sliming their way up from briny depths, crashing to Earth from outer space, and bursting out of piteously inadequate science-lab cages. At Saturday Morning Movie Monster Matinees in the ’60s, a 50-cent ticket to the KB Bethesda (as it was then known), bought mystery and marvels not otherwise found in my corner of suburbia.

A 40-foot blonde, for instance, whose undergarments were inexplicably as affected by exposure to cell-expanding radiation (must’ve been natural fibers) as her body was. She created quite a stir in her small town until she had an unfortunate run-in with her local power plant, as I recall.

I mention this by way of saying that I was looking forward to my first visit in decades to this haunt of my youth, now slightly re-jiggered to accommodate stage shows but otherwise restored to something approximating its original splendor. In the interim, I’d moved to other neighborhoods and missed entirely the theater’s life as a second-run Cinema & Drafthouse, so my memories—possibly erroneous—of a deco lobby done up in pinkish beige and gray, and of a broad, graceful auditorium have remained pristine through the years.

The restored exterior looks much as it always did, though the marquee lights now flash in complicated patterns where once they simply blazed. The colors of the interior are bolder than I remember—restored, apparently, to the architect’s original hues from 1938. The ceiling, with its curved deco swooshes and stenciled design work remains satisfyingly ornate. And if the gentle slope of the front two-thirds of the auditorium (the rear of the house is steeper) provides sightlines more suitable to the verticals of a movie screen than to the low-lying horizontals of live theater, that can doubtless be rectified by either raising the stage, or raking it more steeply.

At roughly 600 generously spaced seats, reduced from its original 1000 or so, the Wisconsin Avenue house is now a pleasantly commodious spot for midsized theatrical attractions, a welcome commercial complement to the nonprofit Round House Theatre around the corner on East West Highway.

What’s harder to welcome is the numbingly pedestrian musical revue, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, with which the Nederlander organization has elected to rechristen the space. A long-running hit with Manhattan’s tourist trade, the show means to be sassy, but its mild observations about guys hailing from Mars and dolls from Venus would have seemed overly familiar even back when black-and-white Martians and Venusians flickered on the Bethesda Theatre’s screen.

The show’s cast, imported from New York, is pleasant of voice and otherwise unexceptional. Credit everyone with energy and note that their efforts to put across songs with such titles as “A Stud and a Babe” (about geek dreamers), and “Tear Jerk” (about a guy who cries at chick flicks) would be better served if Andy Gale’s languid staging didn’t stop dead for 15 seconds of musical vamping at the conclusion of each sketch. Then again, it’s not as if the lyrics (by Joe DiPietro) and melodies (Jimmy Roberts) are developing a big head of steam to begin with.

Lobby posters for upcoming shows My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy, and the Lieber-Stoller revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe suggest that the Nederlanders want to establish the Bethesda Theatre as a venue for the sort of middlebrow commercial attraction that wouldn’t otherwise have a natural home in D.C. Audiences hereabouts haven’t exactly been clamoring for these attractions, but hell, if Shear Madness can play for decades at the KenCen, there’s no good reason the lineup shouldn’t be a smash.