RETURNING to the stage after an extended sabbatical, the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company launches its repertory season with the disturbingly funny "Christmas on Mars." The play, by Harry Kondoleon, is the kind of thoughtfully outrageous stuff the wild Woollys do best.

Playing painful confrontations and confessions as feverishly paced farce, "Christmas" is condensed cream of madness, a speedfreak soap opera squeezing every conceivable plot twist and character quirk from the past ten years of playwriting into the first 20 minutes.

In a barren, recently vacated apartment, a couple begins to politely bicker: Audrey, a frosty casting director, and Bruno, an opportunistic male model, are preparing to marry but qualms have begun to surface, and the relative calm is blasted by the unexpected arrival of hyperneurotic, hyperventilating Nissim.

Claiming to be Bruno's longtime lover, Nissim chainsmokes imaginary cigarettes and delivers amphetamine monologues that make "the arabesque connections common only among the insane and gifted." With the appearance of Ingrid, Audrey's long-estranged mother, the domestic chaos escalates to the point of hysteria.

Preposterous histories rapidly accumulate for all four characters as they swap psychobabble and shocking revelations. Starved for affection and connection, but finding it difficult to reach other adults, all these lonely people eagerly await the birth of Audrey's baby, desperate for a redemptive chance to start afresh with an untouched human being.

Kondoleon's simultaneously alienated and affirmative vision of modern humanity may not sound funny, but it is, radically so, because of the playwright's manic intelligence and director Grover Gardner's swift pacing and sure feel for comedy.

The evening is well-acted all around, though Howard Shalwitz's haunted, charged performance as tragicomic Nissim tends to overshadow the other players. Gra'inne Cassidy finds the pathos in emotionally anesthetized Audrey; T.J. Edwards plays Bruno as everyone's straight man, with bland charm and exasperation; and Nancy Robinette is touching and funny as fragile Ingrid, shadowed by past mistakes and doomed to keep repeating them.

CHRISTMAS ON MARS -- At Woolly Mammoth Theater (Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G St. NW) through May 25.