THE MISS Firecracker Contest," the third in the Olney Theater's season of comedies by American playwrights, would seem to have everything going for it:

a.) A funny, curious title.

b.) Strong performances from a likeable cast, headed by Marcia Gay Harden.

c.) Spirited direction by James Waring, who has also designed some neat lighting effects (indoor fireworks!) and a set with an appropriately fussy, lived-in look.

d.) And writing by Beth Henley, who has shown, in this and other plays like the Pulitzer winning "Crimes of the Heart," a gift for the flavorful language of the people (especially the oddballs) of the South.

But for all that, "Miss Firecracker" somehow disappoints. What this comedy/drama doesn't have is a center, a reason for being. Henley gives the actors plenty of latitude to flesh out personalities for her sketched-in characters. The playwright does sprinkle in a few thematic hints -- the play could be about family sins and reconciliation, or the things we lose in life. But once sounded, these themes don't reappear in the play, which has the feel of an overextended skit.

Henley stretches "Miss Firecracker" over the frame of a small Mississippi town's Fourth of July beauty pageant, and the hopes of one aspirant in particular, Carnelle Scott, played with boisterous energy by Harden. Carnelle is first seen practicing her "talent": a lively, if ludicrous, baton-twirling routine set to "The Star-Spangled Banner." We gradually come to learn that Carnelle has a "checkered past" -- she has already earned the non-pageant title of "Miss Hot Tamale" -- and though she's desperate to leave that behind her in "a crimson blaze of glory," it clings stubbornly to her. Though Carnelle suffers more than her share of setbacks, she emerges chipper and triumphant, perhaps because she is, as a former beau puts it, a gal who "can take it on the chin."

We also meet Carnelle's cousin Elain (Elizabeth Barfield), a blond beauty and former Miss Firecracker who is trying to escape her husband and suffocating suburban perfection. Tim Choate gives a bitterly funny tang to Elain's unkempt brother Delmount, who has a history of mental instability and a predilection for following strange women around if they possess at least one classically beautiful feature.

Two characters are less successful. Popeye, who sews gaudy costumes for Carnelle (and for the town's bullfrogs), is a meant-to-be- endearing near-sighted mess. But as played by Brigid Cleary, Popeye becomes a congested Agnes Gooch cartoon. And tossing in some incongruously sour "realism," Henley provides an unsavory fellow named Mac Sam (amiably played by Daniel McInerny), a carny with a list of ailments including syphilis and tuberculosis.

But Carnelle and friends are winning for the most part, Henley's writing yields some unexpected pleasures (especially in a hilarious three-way crying jag among the three women), and even if "Miss Firecracker" fizzles near the end, the Olney's production is a sparkler.

THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST -- At the Olney Theater through September 1.