DOWN ONE, a play by Barbara Keiler. Directed by Alan Donovan; set designed by Russell Metheny; lighting by Robert Marietta; costumes by Peter Zakutansky; presented by the New Playwrights' Theatre of Washington.

With Phyllis L. Baker, Donna Birndorf, Anne Stone, Sharon Elizabeth Dovle and Bari Biern.

At the American Theatre, L'Enfant Plaza, through April 15.

No one will accuse "Down One" of blazing any new paths in the history of either feminism or the drama, but it covers its well-cleared ground with authority, know-how and a quiet, agreeable humor.

And Barbara Keiler's crisply written play, a New Playwrights' Theatre presentation that had its press opening last night at the American Theatre in L'Enfant Plaza, is supported by an equally solid, sure-footed production.

The story -- about four lackadaisical suburban housewives who begin to vent their life's frustrations during an evening set aside for a weekly bridge game -- has thematic echoes of Ibsen, Shaw and Clare Boothe Luce. But the pressure, which starts out low as the women chat about hair color, house-keepers and Tupperware. builds to more of a sputter than an explosion.

What makes Keiler's play click is her lively, plausible dialogue -- and the intelligent performances of five able actresses.

Chewed out for calling her hostess's housekeeper a "girl," one of the bridge players complains: "I remember when it used to be a compliment to call someone a girl... You used to be a girl or a pig."

When another guest reveals her decision to abandon her husband, her children and Great Neck, Long Island, because she is "bored," she wants her friends to know it's not their fault. "If it hadn't been for you I would have been bored a lot sooner," she assures them.

Less original and less credible is the relationship between the acidtongued housekeeper, Doris, and the bridge players she doles out coffee and cake too. The program insists the play is set in 1978, but the unleavened haughtiness of these affluent ladies makes that seem like a typographical error; their behavior is more appropriate, on the whole, to 1958 or 1928 or sometimes no recognizable year at all.

"Down One" is not what you would expect from an experimental theater with a mandate to take risks and expose rough-hewn talent. Keiler is clearly a talented writer, but her play needs a little more spit to go with its considerable polish.