You might be racing to see movies before the Oscars this Sunday night. But there’s also PLENTY of good and even outstanding theater in and around Boston NOW! Here’s what I think of 4 of the shows I’ve seen in the last 2 weeks:

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

SWEAT: This is a brilliant, viscerally emotional, hyper-relevant Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Lynn Nottage in a knockout production that just opened at the Huntington Theatre Company. This tale of disintegration in the close factory town of Reading, Pennsylvania, zeros in on a group of factory workers who gather regularly at a local bar; polarizing economic forces are about to tear their lives apart when the workers whose generational sweat built those factories, are sacrificed to profit-chasing factory owners.

The play builds quickly as it moves back and forth in time between the economic meltdown of 2008 and the year 2000 when the workers on the floor begin to get wind of changes from above that threaten their wages and jobs. These characters are almost hyper-real; we recognize and feel all of them from their modest dreams right down to their finger nails as they scrape by trying to hang onto what they have built.

The ensemble is flawless, every single one, as they convey through Nottage’s nearly perfect dialogue (I had a few reservations about the “too-wise” bartender) where these characters came from, who they are, what drives them and the choices they make. We ache for each and every one of them. The scenic design (Cameron Anderson) holds these characters and their fates securely within the confines of various sets full of touching, lived-in details which reflect the deterioration of their world.

The play’s genius is its microscopic look at these characters close up, and through them we understand the larger tragedy; we see the fault lines of their relationships around gender, race, and socio-economic status within the vise of an economic squeeze. These workers are pathetically pitted against one another as trickle-down blame takes its toll and tears at the fabric of their community & humanity resulting in unemployment, violence, crime, addiction, and homelessness.

The second act is a punch to the gut and I literally almost broke a sweat; director Kimberly Senior and fight director Ted Hewlett see to that moment by heartbreaking moment. Clinging to our humanity is the only way to survive as Nottage and this company of actors make incandescently clear when the curtain comes down on what can only be called a spiritually cathartic experience. SWEAT has already been extended through March 1 at the HUNTINGTON. Race to get a ticket.

MEAN GIRLS: For a good time and a solidly entertaining musical, this is the show for you. Based on Tina Fey’s movie about the new girl who arrives from the jungles of Africa and has to hack her way through a jungle of HS girls, MEAN GIRLS is sparkly, snarky fun. Dumbing yourself down and dressing yourself up to catch a boy is part of the beastliness that has to be unlearned here; but trying to outwit the queen bee at the head of the hive also has its lessons in empathy and humanity.

That there isn’t a single tune I could hum is always a problem for me and makes this show– despite its topicality– a generic though solidly entertaining musical. The lyrics are funny, the vocals outstanding, and the performances hilarious and peppy, though a few of these “high schoolers” look more like suburban housewives. (Maybe those are the suburban housewives who will never leave their prom queen personas behind?)  The sets, costumes, staging of the musical numbers, and some of the best video projections ever really pump up the fun. See MEAN GIRLS at the OPERA HOUSE through February 9!

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: This two-hander presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project and written by Tanya Barfield is a sleek 65 minutes focusing on a lesbian relationship directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. The play is structured like a dramatic mosaic that skips back and forth in time, and we understand this relationship as the pieces fall together and reverberate with surprising impact. The two actresses –Kelly Chick and Lyndsay Allyn Cox– do an amazing job of slipping seamlessly in and out of different time frames and stages of the relationship over six decades and they do it at what feels like warp speed with laser focus so we know exactly where we are at all times; we feel the tenderness, anger, love, lust, frustration, miscommunication, and disintegration of the relationship– all the pieces known and unknown–simultaneously.  So when the two split we are still aware of the moments that first brought them together and held them there through a marriage and children, before the split and then after.  The effect is not only illuminating around intersectionality, racism, sexism, homophobia, but also poignant and ultimately redemptive, when seen whole. See BRIGHT HALF LIFE in the intimacy of the BCA’s PLAZA THEATRE through February 16!

THE CAKE: It’s too easy to say Bekah Brunstetter’s play THE CAKE is half-baked, but all puns aside, that descriptor absolutely fits the bill. Now on at the Lyric Stage, THE CAKE serves up a real moral and ethical dilemma, then fails to rise to the occasion. Karen MacDonald plays a conservative, southern, small-town baker whose late best friend’s daughter (Chelsea Diehl) asks her to make her wedding cake. The baker is delighted– until she realizes that the daughter is marrying a woman (Kris Sidberry). That the daughter’s fiance is also a New York City slicker with a condescending aversion to gluten and sugar makes the set-up feel increasingly contrived. But I was with it until Act II, when suddenly the lights  came up on an embarrassingly silly scenario involving a deep dive into potential food sex.And it didn’t end there. It was an obvious bid for cheap laughs and made no more sense for these characters than the ultimate denouement.

The performances were fine, but the playwright had no plausible idea of what to do with the complexity of the issues raised, and  ended up shoehorning all the ingredients (including the baker as a contestant on a TV show called “The Great American Bake-Off”) into what felt more like an shallow sitcom, than a seriously comedic take on a truly thorny issue: religion, societal customs, and sexual identity, in conflict with friendship, loyalty and personal conscience. Does letting them eat cake provide the answer? My reaction was like that of the starving populace when Marie Antoinette suggested a similar solution.                                       At the Lyric through February 9.