If playwrights knew what was good for them, they would organize a campaign to get rid of the volunteer army and bring back the draft.

What could make better dramatic fodder, after all, than a situation in which people of wildly varied backgrounds and sensibilities, -- opposites who, if they meet at all in the normal course of life, give each other the immediate brushoff -- are closeted together against their will. And if there's a war on the horizon to test everyone's mettle, so much the better.

In David Rabe's "Streamers," the army is a pressure cooker that generates fierce words, sex, blood and some terrific theater. And the production that opened last night at the tiny Back Alley Theater on Kennedy Street NW, a bit confused and overwrought in places, is a smartly acted, imaginatively directed, powerful piece of work.

As the actors took their bows, someone in last night's audience called "Streamers" a "nice play." This is like calling the hound of the Baskervilles a "nice dog."

The characters are introduced nicely enough: Richie, the effeminate, well-to-do New Yorker, Roger, the fast-talking, upwardly mobile urban black; and Billy, the introspective regular guy from Wisconsin, are three Spec 4s bunking together, shooting the breeze and vaguely wondering whether they'll be sent to Vietnam.

But when Richie admits being homosexual, all sorts of barriers start falling, and when the manic and slightly crazed Carlyle moves in, the psychological unveiling turns brutal. The body count at the end of "Streamers" may not equal My Lai's, but it's a fair-sized bloodbath just the same.

It was Rabe's sharply tuned characters and free-flowing, jargon-jammed dialogue that elevated "Streamers" far above the hokey level of its story line -- and the characters and dialogue are in good hands here.

Vincent Wayne Anderson makes a highly plausible Billy, debating whether to be the unthinking stereotype of a Middle American or face up to the nasty questions in the air. Brian Everett Chandler, as Roger, has a less-complicated character to embody, but plays him to the wiseass hilt, carrying the play over some bumpy patches while he is at it. And David Hornstein and Neil D. Fuller give boisterously exaggerated, powerful performances as two old-salt sergeants.

Director Frederic Lee seems to have paid almost microscopic attention to the physical rigmarole of this lively production, although a few of the more hectic moments are simply too hectic to understand, no less believe. One minor detail needs fixing, however. For two compulsively clean soldiers, Billy and Roger have done a shoddy job with their bedsheets. Someone should teach them how to construct a proper hospital corner.