It is Christmas Day and all through "The Hothouse," not a creature is still. The patients are nestled not so snug in their beds. One of them, in fact, has just been killed and a second has given birth. The man behind both events is quite likely a rumpled autocrat named Roote who runs this ominous institution with dictatorial ineffectuality.

Revolt is brewing among the patients and the staff. Some of them pack knives. One passes out exploding cigars. Miss Cutts, the nurse, uses her short skirt as a weapon. "Something's happening, sir," says Roote's right-hand man. "There's something going on . . . which I can't quite define."

Lest you wonder, we are deep in Harold Pinter country, land of menace and obfuscation.

Written in 1958, "The Hothouse" was tucked away in a drawer until 1980, when Pinter himself directed the premiere in London. Although there have been a few productions in America since then, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is demonstrating considerable pluck by bringing the work to Washington. This is not top-of-the-line Pinter, perhaps, but it's still an absorbing exploration of the territorial imperative. With it, Woolly Mammoth is asserting itself once again as the daredevil among Washington's smaller theaters.

Roote (Howard Shalwitz) is a capricious old coot, clinging in his senility to the remnants of his authority. Gibbs (Carroll Carlson), his tight-lipped assistant, uses servility to mask ambitions that may extend to murder. Lush (Paul DeSandro) is a squiggling little worm not above bribery. Ostensibly, the members of the Hothouse staff are trying to discover who killed 6457 and impregnated 6459 (all patients have numbers instead of names). But in reality, they are jockeying for power, asserting themselves--obliquely, deviously, mysteriously--at the expense of one another.

The hothouse is certainly no kingdom worth possessing. In this institution, copulation is going on in one room while electroshock treatments are being administered in the next. The heating plant is erratic, the new typewriters don't seem to work, and the populace is restless, indeed. "Everything's clogged up, bunged up, stuffed up, buggered up," rails Roote. But that matters not. In Pinter's plays, ascendency is its own reward. To paraphrase Descartes, men connive, therefore they are.

I suspect there is far more mordant comedy in "The Hothouse" than in Woolly Mammoth's production, directed by Brian Nelson, might lead you to believe. Nonetheless, Nelson has captured much of the dread of a world in which a Christmas cake can be as threatening as a time bomb. The cast members are not especially adept at English accents--which may be why they abandon them early on--but they do have a good grip on the sub rosa battles that are being waged, and they make effective use of that Pinter staple, the charged pause. Large patches of the second act are right on key.

Shalwitz--whose flyaway hair and glasses make him look not unlike George S. Kaufman--presents a well-considered blend of bluster and helplessness as Roote. It's a strong performance that acts as a spine for the production. Carlson and DeSandro constitute a pair of well-contrasted pretenders to the throne, the former as meticulous as the latter is scummy. Gwendolyn Briley-Strand is a proper tease as Nurse Cutts, and Jerry Clarke spews forth bright-eyed eagerness as a flunky whose only duties consist of checking and rechecking locked doors. That character is named Lamb, incidentally, which should tell you that he will eventually be led to slaughter.

For its coming season, the Woolly Mammoth has decided to dedicate itself to plays illuminating 1984, that fearful year of the future that is all but upon us. With "The Hothouse," it could be said, the company has already begun the investigation.

THE HOTHOUSE. By Harold Pinter. Directed by Brian Nelson; sets and lights, John Connole; costumes, Petricia Raabe. With Howard Shalwitz, Carroll Carlson, Jerry Clarke, Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, Paul DeSandro, Richard Bertone, Kirsten Vance. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through June 25. CAPTION: Picture, Jerry Clarke as a flunky in "The Hothouse". Copyright (c) by Paul D. Bernstein