The first thing to be said about the Touchstone Theatre Company is that it does exist. Behind a storefront in Arlington near the Ballston Metro stop, at the end of the Orange Line, some young people are trying to pull together an experimental theater company to perform in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

The second thing that must be said is that Touchstone's present offering, "The Sea Horse," demonstrates that much work remains to be done.

The problem begins with Edward J. Moore's two-character play, a self-indulgent exercise in naturalistic drama. Granted there are some good lines, but the characters don't engage your emotions, although they take on enough life to make you regret this. The play could be cut drastically to a one-acter and still say as much.

Any two-character play puts great demands on actors and production. Seven years ago, "The Sea Horse" had moderate success off-Broadway. The Touchstone production makes you wonder why.

The play tells the story of a love affair between an easy-going sailor and a rough-tough gal who runs a water-front bar. Harry comes back from sea with a wedding dress and dreams of settling down with Gert. But, remembering the hurt and pain of her first marriage, Gert has allowed herself to become fat as a kind of protection against love. She can't believe anyone really would love her.

Brian Hemmingsen brings a kind of Alan Arkin charm to the role of Harry. As Gert, Sharon Coleman fails to convey the sense of vulnerability that must exist under the tough-skinned surface of the barmaid if she is to be bearable, much less sympathetic.

Performances of "The Sea Horse" will be given at 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The current run is scheduled to end with a matinee on March 15. The troupe performs at 4246 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, a half block from the Ballston Metro stop. A store has been converted into a spacious, comfortable theater space.

Touchstone will be holding auditions for "A Hatful of Rain," the third production of its pilot season, at the theater a 2 p.m. this Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday.