Cheerleaders are an American icon that almost transcends ridicule; no matter how much they are mocked, they somehow emerge triumphant, forever residents of the popularity heaven so crucial to high-school success. "Vanities," a play that was an off-Broadway hit and is now playing at the Vault, is about these fascinating creatures who worship the "values of pep," and wave bizarre paper pompons around like talismans.

The play starts in a locker room in 1963, with the three heroines planning the pep rally, the football dance, and the rest of their lives -- which they assume will reflect the perfect popularity they have achieved so far. In each of the three acts we see them at different stages in their lives; after the gym, it's in the sorority house during their senior year of college, and then, 10 years after high school, at a reunion in New York.

The play tries to avoid the easily abused difference between a "Saturday Night Live" parody of cheerleaders and a genuine evocation of these particular women. Playwright Jack Heifner produced a script full of sparkling one-liners as well as ellipses of time passed, and it is up to the actresses and the director not to rely too heavily on the former and to complete the latter.

In this production the performers -- Meg McSweeney as the over-sexed Mary, Carole Myers as capable Kathy and Stacy Sklaver as Joanne, who is so conventional she ignores everything that wouldn't fit into a yearbook -- go for the fun and miss the poignancy. They are clearly competent actresses who have been allowed to stay at a level of self-conscious archness instead of reaching for other levels in these very human characters. Nor have they been well served by some of the costuming, which emphasizes detriments rather than camouflages them for the intimacy of a tiny theater. Watching them change costumes and hairdos during the intermission is a device director Dorothy Neumann has not exploited fully; what should be a way to see the characters change has become a quasi-voyeuristic, dimly lit exercise.

All said, the play remains entertaining and each actress has her moments. Stacy Sklaver is convincingly dimwitted and narrow-minded as Joanne, and Carole Myers shows some of Kathy's encroaching despair as she begins to realize that life is not one long pep rally. The newly painted and rearranged 34-seat Vault is a great improvement, and the wonderful sound track is a real '60s mood setter.

VANITIES, by Jack Heifner; a Source Theatre production directed by Dorothy Neumann; set design and construction by Hugh McKay; lighting by Gary Floyd.

With Meg McSweeney, Carole Myers, and Stacy Sklaver. At the Vault through Oct. 24.