A CHRISTMAS CAROL -- (Ford's Theatre, through January 3)

In his affectionate revival of "A Christmas Carol," Ford's Theatre's annual holiday chestnut, director/adaptor David Bell has packed away the 10-foot puppets and intrusive songs, opting instead to get at the heart of Dickens' Christmas classic, which he clearly knows well. So Bell has traded spectacle for sentiment in the many brief and vivid scenes, and has taken a few slight (but unobjectionable) liberties while remaining true to the tale. Steven Crossley's Scrooge isn't the ancient, ossified ogre he's often portrayed as -- instead he's a believable man, and as the Ghost of Christmas Past takes us by the hand, we watch the lonely boy Scrooge grow gradually chillier and more hardbitten in his misguided quest for things that last. Bell's lovely production is delicately underscored by musical director Rob Bowman and his trio, who color the proceedings with the sounds of piano, harps, bells -- and several traditional Christmas songs. This new "A Christmas Carol" is really a return to the essence of the original story, and it will be welcome back year after year.

THE REDTHROATS --

(Studio Theatre, through December 13)

In this hour-long monologue, British-born performance artist David Cale narrates and enacts the story of Steven, an alienated English lad who "wants to be a legend . . . like Judy Garland," manages to escape his dreary lower-class surroundings and gets so far as to board a plane for America. Absurd, comic, surrealistic by turns, "The Redthroats" is an unpretentious little delight. Cale writes and performs his own material with a sharp sense of observation that does not preclude a gentle innocence. Indeed, although Steven's life is the stuff of many a grim drama -- his mother is a pathetic whiner, his father is a brow-beaten failure, and he himself takes to the streets for a while as a hustler -- there's an air of sweet optimism about the piece. On the plane bound for the States, a stewardess announces, "Reality is something you rise above" and Steven has a bizarre, but cheering vision of the new person he's going to become. Using only a chair for scenery, the self-tutored Cale performs all the roles with a freshness and a wide-eyed wonder that will win you over.

ROCKS --

(Javarama, through Saturday)

Marc Spiegel's play is said to be "about sex and God and rocks." And surprise! -- so it is. A philosophical sci-fi cabaret performed to the beat of a decidedly different drummer (and before a gold lame' curtain), "Rocks" encompasses AIDS panic, government conspiracies, rampant consumerism and the concurrent decline in spiritual values. The play is symbolically heavy-handed, but it's also quite funny and spasmodically insightful for much of its 60-odd minutes. Some may call the performances of the four actors -- including playwright Spiegel, Debra Sternberg, Skeeter Jarvis and Michael Leclair -- amateurish. Maybe so, but they're amateurs in the original, positive sense of the word: these folks love what they're doing, and believe in it, too.