Oliver Hailey's "Father's Day," now being staged at the New Back Alley Theater, opens and closes with three women gathered on the terrace of a midtown Manhattan apartment.

They bicker and backbite with bitchy sallies, the more vicious because they are wickedly witty. Louise, Estelle and Marian are divorcees. It is Father's Day, and they are waiting for their ex-husbands to come to take the assorted children on an outing. Soon we are to meet the men and understand the relationships.

At the end of the play, the three women again are gathered on the terrace. By then, we know them much better -- their hopes, fears, needs, disappointments. Beneath the witty exchanges lie both pith and poignancy.

Under the firm-handed direction of Frederic Lee, the production is a striking example of what community-experimental theater can offer. The limited stage space is used effectively and imaginatively, with a big assist from Richard Gaetjens' set design and Tom Collins' lighting.

Cathy Simpson is the ribald, flamboyant Louise, a woman who hides her vulnerability under a sharp tongue. As Marian, Betty Xander is the prim, decorous wife who can swallow her pride and share her former husband with other women. She delivers her lines with impeccable timing: "This is a very private moment. Do you really want us to stay?" she asks even as she is turning around to sit down to listen and savor the conversation. Raquel Valadez carries Estelle from cheerful naivete to the realization that sometimes you have to accept lousy breaks and settle for putting together the bits and pieces of life.

The men -- Jack Sears, Michael Wikes and Raymond Green -- come on the stage in the second act for confrontations with their former spouses and their own feelings. They give fine performances, shading and shaping their characters in the interplay among mates and males and females.

Hailey might have spent less time in the initial bickering -- witty though the lines may be. It takes a trifle long to discover that, beneath the surface, these are women and men with real emotions.

"Father's Day" continues at the New Back Alley through July 13, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The theater is at 1365 Kennedy St. NW.