THE NUNS. By Eduardo Manet. At the Gala Hispanic Theater, 18th St., NW. With Richard Gaetiens, Carlos Brocaz, Manolo Santalia and Diane Sims (Jose Velasco and Laiv Anker in the Spanish-language version). Music by Gil de Campos. Thursdays through Sundays until Sept. 28.

Sister Angela smokes cigars. The Reverend Mother steals jewels. Sister Inez is a deaf mute. And all three nuns are men.

"The Nuns," by Cuban playwright Eduardo Manet, is the latest production by the Gala Hispanic Theater. It plays in English and Spanish on alternate nights. It is about greed, and the message is fairly straightforward -- unbridled lust for power, money and position bring insanity and self-destruction.

This is not a production for the faint of heart. Set in 18th-century Haiti during a revolution, the two main nuns -- Sister Inez is just their lackey -- have conned a noblewoman into giving them all her jewels in return for escaping with the supposed holy sisters, from her family and the rioting. Instead, Sister Angela strangles her so that the three nuns can take her jewels. Sister Inez, shocked by a gift from the noblewoman (it is evidently the only kindness he has ever been shown), tries to prevent her death and gets a bloodied head in return.

The second act finds the three marooned in their quarters with the corpse, graphically described as maggot-eaten and rotting. The nuns have barricaded the doors against approaching revoluntionaries and start fighting among themselves. They spend quite a bit of the second act dressing up the rotting corpse, which is mercifully (for the audience's sake) hidden in a wooden coffin.

The play is billed as an example of theater of cruelty, and lives up to that name. The harshness and brutality of Sister Angela and the Reverend Mother are shocking -- and tiring. There is not relief from cruelty in this play. Director Hugo Medrano has chosen to keep the intensity at a fever pitch throughout, so there is no buildup, no gradual increase of madness or desperation. The characters are shouting nearly all the time, and the end result is close to audience-abuse.

But the other elements of the production are impressive. The two men who play Angela and the Reverend Mother seem marvelously evil (the program does not identify who plays whom), and Sister Inez has a touching note of compassion. Gil de Campos provides a superb musical counterpoint. The director and designers make the most of the small stage, which is essentially a transformed living room.