For sheer terrifying theater, neither complex tragedies nor horror-movie brews of disgusting novelties compare to "K-2," a small, cleanly crafted play by Patrick Meyers, in a breathtaking production at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through June 6.

Even before the play begins, its audience has literal chills -- several people on opening night decided to keep their coats on -- from examining Ming Cho Lee's set, which represents an icy ridge of the world's second-tallest mountain. Realistic snow and clouds are among the most delightful of designers' tricks, but defiantly set out, they are shocking.

The style and the content of the play are out there just as starkly. "Mountains are metaphors, buddy -- the higher you go, the deeper you get," remarks one character, who later reveals the answer to the philosophical question/shaggy-dog joke of mountain- climbing truth-seeking as "Understanding has no meaning -- holding on has meaning."

But the theatrical feats are incredible. Whether it is one man scaling an ice wall above a precipice or the other speaking of his jeopardized life's value in terms of domesticity, it is one sustained thrill. Playwright, actors and the director, Jacques Levy, are all playing the tautness and slackness expertly. The rhythms of physical frights are relieved by moments of relative safety, and the philosophical high-jinks are broken by jokes and limericks, but only just enough to make it all bearable.

A moment in which the stranded characters talk calmly while piling life-sustaining equipment, such as oxygen, water and rope, onto a part of the ledge in which the audience knows there is a crack perhaps goes beyond the bearable.

Stephen McHattie and Stanley Anderson are the two triumphant climbers stuck at 27,000 feet, at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees below zero, with the triumphant realization that they have topped every previous feat except the scaling of Mount Everest -- and that their only problem now is to get off. They are friends from Berkeley, one a neo-conservative Assistant District Attorney and swinging bachelor, the other a liberal physicist and family man. They talk to keep themselves going as the hopelessness of their situation becomes progressively apparent.

The theatrical quality of this talk is high -- a mix of insights and denials, exasperation and love, and even truisms that are appealing because they seem honestly arrived at. When one man suddenly announces that climbing is, after all, only his hobby and not his real work, and is buoyed by this distinction to the point of shouting for help into the vast void, it is hysterically funny to the audience, as well as to the other trapped character. What the play is really doing is to pit messily attractive humanity against nature at its most relentless -- and to make a death-defying sport of it. K2 -- At Arena's Kreeger through June 6.