YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU -- At the Kreeger Theater through January 27.

Once considered to be a surefire comedy that could carry any amateur production, "You Can't Take It Wit You," the 1936 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play, now needs top professional help. Its theme -- that people should relax and express their creativity, rather than dutifully follow a grueling and conventional routine -- is probably the biggest cliche of our day.

But at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, it's done with such winning cleverness and enthusiasm as to be funny and enjoyable on its own terms. This is rather an amazing feat, because it's accomplished without the patronizing air given most old plays in the last two or three seasons. You are not asked to laugh at this because it's dumb, sweet and corny, but because it's good farce, in which the theme is not all that important. Director Douglas C. Wager has not tried to "update" it, but to use its strengths to pull it through.

When Father and the ice man are inventing firecrackers in the basement, Mother is stuck at the typewriter because she has a heroine loose in a monastery, one sister is doing pirouettes on the furniture while cooking coconut candy, her husband is absent-mindedly printing up the sayings of Trotsky while trying to keep a step ahead of the FBI, Grandpa is keeping ahead of the Internal Revenue Service, sister No. 2 is introducing her stuffy in-laws, an unknown drunken actress occupies the sofa, the ballet teacher wrestles visitors to the ground, the Grand Duchess Olga is making blintzes, and the maid is trying to keep order and conduct a romance simultaneously -- well, the burden is not on the play's philosophy.

It's carried, in this show, by excellent comic actors who keep adding small, original touches to these broadly drawn characters.

The most peculiar one is Richard Bauer's being dressed up as George S. Kaufman to play the father, who -- unlike every report of the acidic author -- is affectionate, bashful, adaptable and amiable. Irrelevant as this odd juxtaposition may be, the effect is delightful. There is something warn -- something that bridges the time span to 1936 -- about having a touch of Kaufman on stage. And even without the literary reference, it's a wonderful characterization.

They all are, but some especially good touches are the majestic sulking of Mark Hammer as the Russian dance teacher when he has ruined everything; the endearing combination of awkwardness and happiness of Annalee Jefferies and Timothy Jerome as the young lovers; and the way the young man's rigid parents, played by Halo Wines and Terrence Currier, express their horror not by haughtiness so much as by excruciating attempts to seem friendly.

In approaching this play for what it is -- neither a classic nor a laughing stock, but a solid farce -- Arena has set a high standard for returning to the good plays from our past.