HANDS AROUND -- Wednesdays through Saturdays through September 1. 585-7174.

The Stage Directions company, defeated by awful acoustics at the Duke Ellington School, has moved its production of "Hands Around" to the small but excellent stage of the Takoma School at Piney Branch Road and Dahlia Street NW. Unfortunately, now that the dialogue can be heard, the play doesn't measure up to the quality of the performers and the staging.

Adapted from a turn-of-the-century play by Viennese Arthur Schnitzler, "Hands Around" is billed as a comedy, the laughs meant to come from the rationalizations the characters use to excuse their bed-hopping. There are 10 brief scenes, with one of the lovers in each appearing with a different partner in the next.

It seems a promising set of situations, but what was scandalous in the Victorian Age has lost a lot of punch -- and prurience -- in this day of "if it feels good, do it."

The play might still work as a period piece if the language were not so leaden. Faced with a choice of treating it as a comedy or a farce, the uncredited author of this version went right down the middle. Comedy requires development of believable characters and situations, while farce needs fast-moving caricatures; it's the difference between a short story and a cartoon. And a comedy of manners must have wit and zest along with acute observation of what fools we mortals be.

Zest the cast has -- they need it, since each plays two or three characters -- but bright delivery cannot save dull lines. The script sounds like a transliteration from German to English by someone who learned both languages from books. "Hands Around" would play much better if the pace were doubled, but that would require break-neck speed from the players and drill team precision by the stagehands.

Stage Directions is a (nonprofit) Equity company, and it shows in the performances and the staging. But they're trying to tease laughs from lines hammered in stone.