PASSION PLAY" is a wickedly funnyadult comedy/drama that draws a smile on one side of the face, a wince on the other. Peter Nichols' play, at Arena's Kreeger Theater, shows the battle over monogamy and marriage from both sides of the bed.

James and Eleanor are a pair of intellectual aesthetes whose unexamined life together is rippled and then ripped apart by passion in the sleek form of the amoral and ultramodern Kate -- delicious, destructive and dressed to kill.

James gives in to the fling "just once," but falls deeply into the carnal subterfuge with Kate. It's not just lust for Kate that drives James, but also his need to hang on to his virility and freedom. He's scared into the affair by the vision of approaching age. And Eleanor plants her feet and clings to him for variations on the same reasons.

Nichols knows well this universal terrain and its language. "Passion Play" brings a shudder of recognition as he raises the hard questions about sex: Why hang on to monogamy at all? Love? Habit? Fear of failure?

Using the ingenious device of placing James and Eleanor's alter egos onstage -- coaching, needling, sometimes standing in for the "real" players -- Nichols allows them a view of their own verbal and spiritual slugfests, exposing the gulf between the civilized, cautious veneer and the raging, fast-thinking ego.

Director Elinor Renfield keeps it all crackling without being confusing, and the acting is superb all around -- by Stanley Anderson as James, Halo Wines as Eleanor, Marilyn Caskey as Kate, and Ned Schmidtke and Jayne Haynes in the demanding roles of alter egos "Jim" and "Nell." Loren Sherman's elegant set design accommodates several cafes, a boudoir and a photo gallery in and around James and Eleanor's chic living room.

Nichols doesn't takes sides or pretend to answer the questions he raises. But a brief, startling dream sequence reveals where he may be pointing, as Eleanor, in the midst of a bacchanal, finds herself hiding behind a painting of Christ's passion, revealing the terror some feel when the security of convention and trust drops away, leaving the fearsome open pit of the new "free" world, in which "variety is an aphrodisiac." PASSION PLAY -- At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through January 27.