The playwright's the thing in "The Little Playwright," a cheeky parable about struggling artists, cunningly performed by Smallbeer Theatre Company.

In one giddy hour filled with sly little swipes, playwright Rosemarie Caruso gives us the skinny on playwriting: "A nice, old shaggy profession you could scratch behind the ears. Not something that reeks of income, like an anesthesiologist." Theater insiders will likely laugh loudest, but anyone with a soft spot in his heart for show folk should enjoy it, too. You may never look at a play the same way again.

Caruso sets the stylized dizziness in present-day Manhattan, but it could happen anywhere -- Washington, even. "This is an autobiography. It happened to me," begins nondescript Beth, who pronounces herself a playwright and blithers earnestly about her beloved art. "A writer is blessed ... A writer does not zoom to success only to be cast aside when her cellulite starts breaking down. Her thighs are her personal business."

But there's another business -- show business -- to be gotten on with, and Beth gamely struggles with her writing, tries to secure an agent and endures the inane ranting of actor friends and the nagging of her unbelieving family (she runs into them at funerals), who invariably ask with a smirk, "So what are you doing for money?" It's a question familiar to any artist.

"Poor Beth," as they call her, lives on the charity of her wealthy cousins Marlene and Mark. Brimming with reciprocal generosity, Beth decides to teach their 10-year-old daughter Vicki, a "Baby June"-type, just what it is a playwright does. Working out scenes with her Barbie dolls, Vicki takes to playwriting like a duck to water. Smitten, her parents get Vicki's work produced (it took her a month to write it), and soon the little playwright wins a presidential citation, is directed by Michael Bennett and is hailed as "a startling new voice."

Meanwhile, through all these frustrations and humiliations, indomitable Beth has yet to get her own work on stage. She makes the rounds with her scripts hoping for a production -- any production -- which leads to hilarious encounters with fly-by-night festivals ("The Fallen Moon Goddess One-Act Play Festival") and exotic directors who blithely misinterpret her scripts.

Lynnie Raybuck leads the cast with a buoyantly humorous performance as Beth, always optimistic in the face of futility, a chuckle chasing her insecurities. T.G. Finkbinder injects energetic lunacy into the dual roles of doting daddy Mark (who contains shades of Arch Campbell) and a babbling burlesque of an Italian grandmother. Michaeleen O'Neil is deliciously tart as mother Marlene, and Nick Mathwick is manically self-absorbed as Beth's actor friend Bryan.

Smallbeer is a relatively new company with an offbeat off-off-Broadway sensibility. Under director Kevin Murray's efficient hand, the ensemble provides the right over-the-top touch to this material, combining the craftiness of theater of the absurd and the naivety of a children's puppet show. Though it's art about Art, it never assumes a self-important tone or an in-joke insularity. It would be a real pleasure to see this plucky production transferred to a more hospitable space, but as it is, the rudimentary capabilities of the Sanctuary Theatre add some unintentional irony to this refreshingly brief, biting play. The Little Playwright, by Rosemarie Caruso. Directed by Kevin Murray; setting, Lynnie Raybuck. With T.G. Finkbinder, Nick Mathwick, Mary Naden, Michaeleen O'Neil, Lynnie Raybuck, Deborah Stromberg. At Sanctuary Theatre (in Calvary United Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd.) through July 18.