ARDELE, by Jean Anouilh; directed by Akim Nowak; scenery by Akim Nowak and Mark Rigsby; lighting by Gary Floyd; costumes by Robert Shampain; with Richard Mancini, Ann Todaro, Maureen McGinnis, Issac Babazadeh, Nancy Castle, Brian Hemmingsen, Dean Morin, Christopher Henley, Salowa Skiredi and Mary Stetina.

At D.C. Space through May 24.

Clearly, gumption is one of the emerging characteristics of Washington's small-theater movement. Confronted with minimal budgets, unsympathetic performing spaces and a limited pool of actors, the new generation of theatrical impresarios responds by tackling the most ambitious plays in sight -- plays like "Henry V," "Medea," and "The Seagull," which demand huge casts, elaborate period scenery and costumes and acting virtuosity on a grand scale.

Just to have put Jean Anouilh's "Ardele" into the Spheres Theater Company's cramped second-story quarters on 7th Street NW is an astonishing achievement. But director Akim Nowak and his associates have done better than that. They have put together an agreeably manic production of what may be a lost masterpiece of 20th-century absurdist comedy.

Nowak has shrewdly decided to treat "Ardele" as out-and-out comedy, handling its love scenes much as the Comedie Francaise would handle a Feydeau farce. In fact, "Ardele" is bedroom farce, as staged here, except for the technicality that it takes place in a living room -- the living room of Gen. Leon Saint-Pe's French country estate, where he has summoned his relations to deal with a family crisis. His deformed sister Ardele (never seen on stage) has fallen in love with his son's tutor, who is also deformed, and she means to abscond from her locked room and get married.

The family members are at once outraged by this love affair, and more interested in their own. The General, for instance, is carrying on with a housemaid, while at the constant beck and call of his insane wife, whose screams, to confuse matters further, are easily mistaken for those of the peacocks who inhabit the grounds outside. His son-in-law, the Count, has just begun an affair with a seamstress which, he proudly announces, is "the real thing." The proof is that "the other day she tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of laudanum." ("Oh!" exclaims the General. "The whole thing sounds enchanting.") The Countess, meanwhile, is having an affair with her husband's best friend, Villardieu, although he, in turn, has been getting suspicious -- wondering, that is, if his mistress isn't spending time with her husband on the sly.

Written in 1948, "Ardele" is a comedy full of verbal and physical antics. This cast, however, fares better with the physical than the verbal side of things. One of the skills that set first-rate actors apart is the ability to do many things with a line of dialogue and still deliver it in a hurry. Nowak and his troupe have recognized that "Ardele" is no occasion for weighty pauses or anything but a locomotive pace, but the commendable rhythm of the production is achieved at the cost of slurring over much of the delicacy of the wit.

Nancy Castle, as the Countess, is one member of the cast who resists this tendency. So do Maureen McGinnis and Christopher Henley as two very intense star-crossed lovers. The rest of these performers tend to look better than they sound. Dean Morin, for example, strikes some very funny postures as the ever-uncomfortable Villardieu, while Richard Mancini rushes about the stage with amusing desperation even as he is flubbing a fair percentage of the General's lines.