Peter Nichols' "Passion Play" is surely one of the most devastating contemporary plays ever written about a husband, a wife and the other woman. It is also one of the most deceptive.

For the first half of the canny production that opened last night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, you will find yourself more than unusually entertained by the shams and delusions of a modern-day affair. Then, as the characters begin to find themselves in over their heads, you will be drawn to their mounting pain and confusion. Finally, the awful consequences of adultery crash over the stage, and Nichols has you confronting the very nature of passion itself.

Observing her husband, James, who restores artwork and has just taken the stain out of a Minimalist painting, Eleanor says wryly, "Minimal painting, miminal man." Indeed, it is Nichols' contention that we are all truncated creatures, living badly with lust and even worse with love. No longer capable of throwing ourselves into pagan bacchanals, although we still have the itch, we take no solace from Christianity, for we no longer have the true belief. We are trapped somewhere betwixt and between, the British playwright is saying, and the toll on our psyches is terrible.

"Passion Play" is often bald in its language and actions. But that, too, marks our low estate. Sex, the "flash of happiness before the void," has been reduced to acts of guilty copulation. Love verges on pornography. Fantasies distort the vision. Subterfuge and stratagem govern our relationships. But the most grievous subterfuges may be those we perpetrate on ourselves.

Nichols digs so deeply that his play is apt to involve and implicate anyone who ever embarked on a relationship and wondered what terrors and ecstasies lay in store. Unlike Noel Coward's comedies, which postulate a gulf between the charmingly adulterous (and superior) characters on stage and the audience, "Passion Play" hurtles the viewer inside its characters' tangled minds. It does so by providing the husband and the wife with alter egos.

James, the stuffy, second-rate art scholar, more given to yawning than wandering after 25 years of marriage, is played by Stanley Anderson; his inner self -- still voracious for experience, impulsive, petrified that time is slipping between his fingers -- is depicted by Ned Schmidtke. Similarly, Halo Wines plays Eleanor, the cool wife who slakes her spiritual thirst by singing ecclesiastical music in a professional choir, but otherwise adheres dutifully to an apparently conventional marriage. When she learns of her husband's affair and is roused from her passivity, she too gets a double, Jayne Haynes.

The contrast between their public and private selves makes for some hilarious ironies early on. We see James lying calmly to his wife about his first afternoon rendezvous, at the same time the inner James is stammering and sweating for fear that the lie will not take. Eleanor, so unruffled on the surface -- "a cat with cream," James calls her -- has claws in private and a surprisingly tart tongue.

As the play thickens, however, the fanciful device actually allows Nichols to multiply his characters' anguish, layer their bewilderment and explore, concurrently, the contradictory impulses in their souls. In one of the evening's most arresting moments -- brilliantly staged by director Elinor Renfield -- James and Eleanor sit on the sofa, passively watching their other selves engage in a knock-down, drag-out fight on the floor. As an image of the hatred behind the dull eye and the psychic violence we wreak on one another, this one is indelible.

You will notice, however, that Kate (Marilyn Caskey), the other woman, does not come equipped with an inner self, even though she is by far the most duplicitous person on stage. There's a reason for that. She is no more than she appears -- a creature of pure carnality out to satisfy her desires as expediently as possible. If that means wearing see-through lingerie for some men, or washing herself clean of her usual heavy perfume for others, or even cozying up to the wives of her prey, so be it. She is perfectly amoral, and consequently, Nichols indicates, the only one likely to emerge from the wreckage unscathed. (Shaking free of her usual good-girl image, Caskey plays the lasciviousness with forthright aplomb.)

The elements in "Passion Play" are those of any soap opera. There are the inevitable pills, the booze, the pilfered letters, recriminations, jealousies and, of course, the "best friend," who opens the wife's eyes over lunch (Tana Hicken's vindictive relish in the role is splendid.) All this does not trivialize "Passion Play" so much as contribute to a kind of swollen grandeur. If it is a banal affair that is being chronicled, it is a persistent one that won't, can't, stop. Like a recurring nightmare -- more terrifying with each recurrence -- it induces an increasing sense of helplessness in the participants, even as their feelings are building to a frenzy.

The performers are all ruthlessly honest in their portrayals. But more than any individual qualities -- Wines' pale dignity under duress; Anderson's residual affability; Schmidtke's coltish exuberance; Haynes' wry spite -- what you will admire is the give-and-take among them. An emotion born in one passes to the other, is altered and enriched, then reverts to the first for further elaboration. It is an instance of 2 plus 2 making 20. The interplay is tantalizingly intricate, but as Renfield orchestrates it, rarely confusing.

The production, designed by Loren Sherman, is handsomely housed in a sleek living room set, augmented by subsidiary locales that glide on and off efficiently, before the whole structure flies apart at the end to let in the red glow of hell.

Our profane age, you see, no longer knows what to make of passion. It has become a dead end for dying men. Christ is an "old kill-joy," just a face on a painting in need of restoration. Sex neither exalts nor replenishes. The fire before the ashes, it merely consumes.

PASSION PLAY. By Peter Nichols. Sets, Loren Sherman; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes. With Tana Hicken, Halo Wines, Stanley Anderson, Ned Schmidtke, Marilyn Caskey, Jayne Haynes. At Arena's Kreeger Theater through Jan. 27.