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Review | On two D.C. stages, plays navel-gaze about — what else? — the stage

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To fully enjoy “Which Way to the Stage?,” the delightfully wry theater-world comedy at Signature Theatre, it helps to have an appreciation of certain dramatic things. These include: the production history of the musical “If/Then,” the résumé-building value of a summer acting job in Maine, the role of the salacious puppet Lucy in “Avenue Q” and the outrageously fabulous psychodramas of drag.

But that probably goes without saying, because the target audience for Ana Nogueira’s spiky play is a self-selected slice of the population for whom Bernadette and Patti and Chita and Barbra are the faces that should be carved into Mount Rushmore.

The playwright adds to this confection, directed with insight and affection by Ethan Heard, names and events that are as daily bread to the subset of society that without a steady theater diet would fail to thrive. As noted by Jeff, for instance, an actor and drag artist played with stiletto-sharp comic timing by Mike Millan, the true wonder of the world is the fact that Audra McDonald sings all her notes in her head voice.

“Which Way to the Stage?” concerns the friendship of Jeff and Judy (Dani Stoller), the latter an actress who can’t land a part and is becoming increasingly testy and burned out. The play is a tribute to all struggling actors who suffer for their art by enduring endless rounds of professional rejection. Antithetically, we are witness to the experience of another actor, Mark (Michael Tacconi), a former finance guy with a male-model jawline who strolls into auditions and gallingly walks out with casting offers.

Even if this is a familiar starving-artist premise, the evening is elevated in Signature’s intimate Ark space by Nogueira’s piquant dialogue. Other assets are the vibrant performances of Millan, Stoller, Tacconi and Nina-Sophia Pacheco, who plays both an actress competing for parts with Judy and a coarse bride-to-be heckling Jeff during his drag act. Jeff’s crowning achievement is his hyper-dramatic impersonation of Idina Menzel lip-syncing as both Maureen and Elphaba. (If you don’t know these major roles in “Rent” and “Wicked,” then maybe this isn’t your night.)

Mark will prove to be a disruptive force in “Which Way to the Stage?,” a development that injects a welcome tension into the proceedings. Nogueira uses the character to drive a sexual wedge between Jeff and Judy, which exposes other fault lines: Jeff is made uncomfortable by some of Judy’s attitudes about gay men; Judy harbors misgivings about how women are caricatured in Jeff’s drag act. Though the denouement proves to be a little tidy, there’s authentic heart in this amusing play.

Playwright Talene Monahon strives for yuks, too, in another comedy with theatrical roots. “Jane Anger,” at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre, is set in 1606 in the London digs of Shakespeare himself. As played by Michael Urie, a natural farceur if there ever was one, Will is suffering from writer’s block and considering lifting the plot and characters of an extant drama, one “King Leir,” to get back on track. (His brainstorm being to change “ei” in the title to “ea.”)

But under Jess Chayes’s direction, the uneven play only evinces laughs of the more strained variety. There’s a scattershot quality to the gibes and insufficient development of its central idea, that of a woman aspiring to the life and renown of a dramatist. The woman is this case is Amelia Workman’s Jane, who drops in to Will’s flat seeking his formal endorsement of her own writing career. He’s too consumed with vanity to pay much notice: Kristen Robinson’s set is dominated by a painting of Urie so enormous it probably could be seen from the other side of the Thames.

Ryan Spahn is on hand as a fawning drifter seeking employment, and Monahon appears as Shakespeare’s spouse, Anne Hathaway, who’s traveled from Stratford-upon-Avon to inquire as to why her husband never comes home. Urie’s patented drollness is the only estimable glue here, in a satire that too often lands with a Jacobean thud.

Which Way to the Stage?, by Ana Nogueira. Directed by Ethan Heard. Set, Richard Ouellette; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Uptownworks: Noel Nichols, Bailey Trierweiler and Daniela Hart. About two hours. Through Jan. 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.

Jane Anger, by Talene Monahon. Directed by Jess Chayes. Set, Kristen Robinson; costumes, Andrea Hood; lighting, Stacey Derosier; music and sound, Lindsay Jones. With Geoffrey Besser. About 95 minutes. Through Jan. 8 at Klein Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.

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