The Atlas arts center, and its full theater menu, is a gem on H Street


Seeing back-to-back plays on a Saturday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, on the 1300 block of H Street NE, might sound like pretty ordinary theater news. But in the ongoing story of the Atlas, it’s a thoroughly exhilarating status report.

Two plays, in two of Atlas’s four theaters, by two companies that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Neither of the plays did, either. So the Atlas, by way of Mosaic Theater Company, with “Bars and Measures,” and Prologue Theatre, with “The Cake,” is fulfilling in the most urgent manner the vision that Jane Lang, its chief benefactor, set down. Her dream was a dynamic hub for music, dance and theater in a part of the city that sorely needed their embrace.

“It’s not just an arts center, it’s a revival,” one of the Atlas’s founding board members, Phyllis D. Thompson, told me in 2005, as the redevelopment of Atlas, a former movie palace, was underway. Nearly two decades later, her words would ring truer than either of us could have imagined: The H Street corridor is now a robust and still evolving district of restaurants and stores, from Union Station to the Maryland line, traversed by a free streetcar line and dotted with new apartment buildings.

The $18.5 million rehab of Atlas, which fell into blighted disrepair after the ’68 riots gutted H Street NE, was indeed an anchor for the revival and a notably stabilizing presence. Joy of Motion Dance Center was Atlas’s first tenant 18 years ago and remains there today. Theater companies have come and gone, for sure, and the tenuous times for arts groups mean that a venture such as Atlas exists in a perennial state of anxiety. But Mosaic has made the arts center a home since its inception in 2015, with “Unexplored Interior,” under then artistic director Ari Roth.

Its latest play, in Atlas’s Sprenger Theater, “Bars and Measures,” marks the Mosaic directorial debut of Reginald L. Douglas, who succeeded Roth a year ago as artistic director. The 80-minute piece by Idris Goodwin is a portrait of a pair of jazz-crazed brothers, Eric (Joel Ashur) and Bilal (Louis E. Davis), the latter of whom becomes a government target for allegedly giving money to a terrorist group.

The complex issues surrounding the charges are only sketchily outlined, to the detriment of the proceedings; we’re given little indication as to whether Bilal was an active participant in a crime or an unwitting sympathizer. This becomes vital as the plot hinges on Eric’s devotion to his older brother: It was Bilal, christened Darren, who passed on to Eric his passion for jazz, and it is the music that serves as their principal bond even after Bilal goes to jail.

Jazz, courtesy of composer Kristopher Funn, suffuses the production, but only in small recorded bursts: A handsome bass violin is perched upstage, bathed in ethereal light by designer John D. Alexander, but is left unplayed. (A lone bass player does entertain before curtain time.) Ashur and Davis offer vivid portrayals, but the rests, if you will, in “Bars and Measures” leave too many gaps for the drama to find a powerful voice.

In the Atlas Lab space adjacent to the Sprenger, Prologue Theatre, a company founded in 2018, offers up a play by Bekah Brunstetter that pops pretty fresh out of the topical oven: “The Cake,” a seriocomedy about how a mixture of flour, sugar and gender politics destroys lifelong ties. Jen (Tara Forseth) returns to her conservative hometown from New York with her fiancee, Macy (Sabrina Lynne Sawyer), with a request for her late mother’s close friend, Della (Nicole Halmos): Could Della, who runs the local bakery, whip up their wedding cake?

The turmoil that follows is a mirror of such controversies in news accounts: Della’s faith won’t allow her to create a confection for a same-sex couple, even if her resistance jeopardizes being cast on a network bake-off series. On an impressively pristine, sitcom-ready bakery set by Jason Tamborini come some fairly predictable emotional bumps and bruises. Brunstetter, who wrote the sparkling book to Cinco Paul’s score for Olney Theatre Center’s hilarious “A.D. 16,” treads a tidier path in “The Cake.” It’s respectful to all its well-played characters, including Sam Lunay as Della’s unappreciative husband, Tim. But like a slice of red velvet made with a deficit of cocoa, it needs a little more bite.

In any event, even a decent nibble feels like a worthwhile meal at the Atlas.

Bars and Measures, by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Reginald L. Douglas. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, John D. Alexander; sound, David Lamont Wilson; music, Kristopher Funn. With Lynette Rathnam, Afsheen Misaghi. About 80 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter. Directed Aria Velz. Set, Jason Tamborini; costumes, Alexa Duimstra; lighting, Helen Garcia-Alton; sound, Justin Schmitz. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

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