A FORMER GOTHAM GAL by Gloria Gonzalez. Directed by Robert Schulte; lighting by Michael Lodick; set design by Marc Bachman and Lynn Francis; costumes by Peter Zakutansky.

With Lynnie Raybuck, Paul Morella, Bernie Papure, Shirley Summa Brazda, Beverly Sheehan, Elliott Hill, Stu Lerch, Brian Corrigan and Jeff Albert.

At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Feb. 24.

Geraldine, a former journalist and a former wife as well as "A Former Gotham Gal," drinks Pepsis for breakfast. But that doesn't stop her from reprimanding one of her bizarre boarders for drinking too much coffee.

"You'll lose your eyesight," she warns.

"Hey, you told me the same thing about masturbating!" protests Geraldine's son Rhett, the reporter.

"Well, I had to think of something," she answers. "I could never get into the bathroom."

Since Geraldine's job -- reading manuscripts for publishers and producers -- is scarcely lucrative, she feeds her household by wheedling refunds out of food firms.

"I found an insect in your otherwise fine product," she writes the Tropicana orange juice people. "Shall I mail it to you?"

"Didn't we do that one last week?" asks another boarder -- Cissy the actress -- who happens to be dressed up as a beaver at this stage of the play.

"No, that was Hi-C," Geraldine replies.

Later, Cissy has a spat with her fiance, who seems to be rethinking his proposal: "Marriage," he explains, "is a very big step. It's the most important thing a person does in their entire life -- other than buying a car." i

All of this nonsense, and a lot more besides, springs from the comic brain of Gloria Gonzalez, a young playwright whose new play -- new if you ignore all the workshops and conferences it has been kicking around for the last few years -- opened at the New Playwrights' Theatre Sunday night.

Skillfully directed by Robert Schulte and colorfully acted by a large cast, "A Former Gotham Gal" will probably be one of the company's biggest crowd-pleasers to date. Yet the waves of laughter the play will legitimately inspire should not altogether obscure the fact that its characters bear no more than a passing resemblance to human beings and that its plot is connected to its gags about as permanently as Howard Cosell's hair to his scalp.

"A Former Gotham Gal" is another in the long line of zany-family comedies loosely descended from "You Can't Take It With You," which Arena Stage produced so recently and so well. The genre has been largely co-opted by television these last few decades, and Gonzalez' play is indeed very sitcom-like -- so much so that it may be fair to ask why a live stage needs to be turned over to such a project. (Gonzalez, according to the program, has written a sitcom for CBS.) But again, laughs have a way of turning all picky questions moot.

It may be less picky to question the discipline with which Gonzalez manages her talents. Occasionally, which is too often, she suffers from bouts of Mel Brooks Disease -- the inability to forego a joke, no matter how labored or how desperate.

Geraldine's old beau, Jack, trying to woo her to Paris, tells her, "I'm missing something and I only had it once before -- with you."

"It was probably indigestion," she replies.

In one particularly gratuitous piece of zaniness for zaniness's sake, Geraldine tells us about a bank robber who boarded with her last year. He was the sweetest guy -- he taught me how to crochet . . ." Another unseen character is said to have ironed handkerchiefs by putting them though a typewriter roller.

The cast is energetic and likable right down the line, from Shirley Summa Brazda in the largest role to Brian Corrigan in the smallest. (Corrigan, incidentially, has one of the best whacked-out, quizzical looks since Tommy Smothers.)

To accomodate all these weirdos, Marc Bachman and Lynn Francis have designed a sturdy, handsome set.