THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; directed by Dougals C. Wager; settling by Adrianne Lobel; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by William Mintzer; with Mark Hammer, Annalee Jefferies, Robert W. Westenberg, Robert Prosky, Richard Bauer, Stanley Anderson, Halo Wines, Dorothea Hammond, Leslie Cass, Ernest Graves, Terrence Currier, Charles Janasz and Kimberly Farr. At Arena Stage through Jan. 4.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner," the most successful in-joke in the history fo the theater, has come out of the closet again, and it is like rediscovering an ancient winter coat you forgot you owned. You dust it off, hold it to the light, shake a few mothballs from its lining and are gratified to discover that the old garb looks surprisingly spiffy.

This is not a perfect production (assuming there could be such a thing), but its imperfections spring from an honorable cause: The Arena Stage company and director Douglas C. Wager have scoured ever pocket and wrinkle of the play for new comic possibilities, and they have found a few that are very satisfying indeed. They have also found possibilities that, in retrospect, should have been disregarded. But the basic appeal of the story endures and enthralls -- the caricatured clas between eastern sophistication and middle-American "normality," as embodied by the overbearing title character and the Ohio household he invades.

This is a more adventurous airing-out of the play than New York's Circle-in-the-Square Theatrer gave it last summer with Ellis Rabb in the lead. The Rabb version was smoother and more elegant, but this one is more vigorous, more imaginative and more fun. It is also a triumphant vindication of Arena's commitment to a permanent acting company -- apparently a dying concept in this mobile age of the big buck.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" is filled with rich performances by now-familiar (or almost-Familiar) members of the Arena troupe. Several prominent members of this 28-person cast are playing "against type," if they don't mind my saying so, and specifically against the types they were just playing a few weeks ago in Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar plays -- except that both turn out to be ideally suited to Arena's physical and human resources.

The production is a particular triumph for Mark Hammer, an eight-year Arena veteran who has his largest role to date (in girth as well as lineage) as Sheridan Whiteside, the tyranical title character. At first, the quips roll to effortfully off Hammer's tongue, and the wit sounds like store-bought goods. But as the play gets cooking, Hammer becomes steadily more spontaneous and energetic; and when he fumes, sparls, grunts, wheezes with displeasure, or blows Machiavellian smoke rings in the air -- as he will do from time to time -- he is a roly-poly, despotic delight.

Whiteside was based on Alexander Woolcott, the 300-poundish critic, pundit, storyteller, fireside chatter and friend to the famous who become a national figure through the magic of radio. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart knew Woollcot as a fellow knight of the Algonquin Round Table, and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" grew out of the notion that he would make a heavenly body to revolve a Kaufman-Hart comedy around. Better yet, this would be the chance to bring other intimates of theirs and his to life on stage -- includig Harpo Marx and Noel Coward. Kaufman and Hart would put these flamboyant specimens of Broadway glamor andinternational glitz into the incongruous setting of a snowbound Ohio hamlet, where Woolcott/Whiteside would be waylaid to wreak havoc among his unwilling local hosts.

Amazingly, it all worked -- or not so amazingly, considering all the craft that went into the plotting of this frothy escapade. Audiences did not require any knowledge of the real people involved to find Kaufman and Hart's characters jolly companions for the night -- and they still don't.

Which is just as well, for Stanley Anderson would be no one's first choice to impersonate Harpo Marx, and Richard Bauer would rank low on any list of Noel Cowards. But Anderson gives a wonderfuly impetuous, schizophrenic portrayal of Banjo, the Harpo-like whirling dervish who takes command of the third act. And Bauer, although truly miscast (he doesn't have the musical skills the role requires, for one thing), oozes elegantly through the part of Beverly Carlton in a suit so exactly tailored that you could count the change in his pockets from across the room.

Among the vivid memorable supporting performances, Robert W. Westenberg and Annalee Jefferies play the chief romantic interests -- a hometown journalist and Whiteside's trusted, astringent secretary -- with unusual ease and care; Charles Janasz makes the most of a bit part as the daughter's radical suitor, and Terrence Currier is hugely funny as the doctor who struggles to interest Whiteside in his memoirs of 40 years as an Ohio general practitioner.

Unfortunately, someone has decided to make the doctor progressively funkier as the play goes on, culminating in a drunk act that is implausible and disruptive -- to the extent that so anarchic a play can be disrupted. There are other excesses and miscalulations, but except for one seriously erratic performance (by Kimberly Farr), nothing to she tears about.

This is Arena's second annual Christmas journey to Kaufman-and-Hart-land. Is a tradition in the making? if so, it could turn into one of the better reasons to be in Washington at the holiday season.