There are 21 scenes in David Rudkin's "Ashes," which opened Wednesday night at the Washington Project for the Arts.

This is valuable advance information because, thus armed, the theatergoer is less likely to imagine the end is near after a mere 12 or 14 scenes as some members of the opening night audience did. From about the halfway point on, it was a real challenge to resist wondering if each thunderous oration might be the playwright's closing words of the evening. But every time the audience began gently buttoning up and eyeing the exits, the actors would appear anew and the patrons would settle down again and prepare for further entertainment.

Even the cast seemed to be wondering, once or twice, what else they could possibly say. But the script was always there to oblige.

First produced in London in 1972, "Ashes" is about an English couple's struggle to bear a child. The program says it is semi-autobiographical, and it is certainly full of intriguing and horrifying detail about the grim rituals a man and woman may have to submit to when their regenerative potential is in doubt -- sperm counts, specially treated douches, prescribed sex postures, constant post-coital examinations and so forth.

But Rudkin is not content to pursue the basic question of whether anything is worth such an ordeal, and whether the ordeal represents an insult to nature. He disposes of that theme in short order and then moves on to another play entirely, a play with no intelligible theme and no structure, only layer after layer of muddy pontification. William Goeren and Janet Stanford, who play the two principal characters, are able and willing young actors who do their best in a half-baked production. aMay they move on to better things.