OKAY, SO MAYBE you can't take it with you. But you can do it again. And so the Olney Theatre, which last produced "You Can't Take It With You" in 1956, is having another go at it this summer.

Thirty-four years later, director James D. Waring is once again guiding the eccentric, extended Sycamore family through its enduringly funny business. The Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart is perhaps the most popular play in America, with hundreds of productions staged annually, according to a spokesman for Dramatists Play Services, which leases the rights to the play.

"I had to get out the programs from the archives," says Waring, on a lunch break from rehearsals. "I didn't remember much about the '56 show, but I found that Bob Ludlum played Tony Kirby, the juvenile. You probably know him as Robert Ludlum -- the one who writes all the spy novels. And Phil Bosco was in that cast, too."

The current cast -- a luxurious 19 actors strong -- is loaded with heavy hitters, too, including several members of the Arena Stage company (Halo Wines, Terrence Currier and David Marks); Olney faves Tom Toner, Brigid Cleary and Irv Ziff; plus John McDonald, artistic director of Washington Stage Guild, and Michael W. Howell, who recently filled in for the ailing Yaphet Kotto in Arena's "Fences."

Though he knows the play well, Waring says he's starting from scratch. He says he was knocked by critics Richard Coe and Mary McGrory for staging the original as a farce, and for making light of Communism so soon after the McCarthy era.

"I've redone it all, of course, because about 100 productions later I couldn't really remember what I did back then," says Waring, who's designing the set as well as directing. It's a typical set of the period, he says, "a good old three-wall living room."

"You Can't Take It With You" falls in the middle of one of Olney's most strikingly playful seasons, which opened with a new musical, "Dennis the Menace," and a controversial play, David Hare's "The Secret Rapture." Waring says he chose this crowd-pleasing chestnut because "it's really an American classic. It's good to return to this stuff now and then -- it keeps you honest." And, he says, because it still makes him laugh.

"You Can't Take It With You" begins performances Tuesday. Call 924-3400. YOU HEARD RIGHT: Free theater. Not only that, but four plays for free. Make that four hot plays. Politically hot, that is. In double bills. Potomac Theatre Project is presenting its third Washington season, a "festival of political plays," absolutely free through Aug. 5 at the 120-seat Hall of Nations, 1221 36th St. NW.

Program A (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) includes Sarah Daniel's angry "Masterpieces," about women and pornography. and "Iranian Nights," which Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton, a PTP favorite, dashed off in the heat of the Salman Rushdie contretemps. Program B (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) offers Athol Fugard's "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act" and Joe Orton's tart comedy "The Good and Faithful Servant." Performances are at 3, 4:45, 7:30 and 9:15 on weekends; 7:30 and 9:15 weekday evenings.

"Everyone's been fascinated by the idea," says Jim Petosa, one of PTP's three co-founders, between shows at Tuesday's opening night. "They all want to know how we can do it. And why?"

Petosa says the why is "to remove the burden of a ticket price, and let whoever wants to come in and hear the play. If you like this, if you want to hear some more, then help us out with a donation so we can keep doing this."

As for the how, Petosa says the group, supported in part by Middlebury College in Vermont, is operating on a zero-based production budget, did not exceed what it had in terms of unearned income and is offering no-frills productions -- theater in the rough.

"It's kind of taken the capitalism out of it, and I like that," says Petosa, who's directing "Statements," Fugard's play about the political interrogation of an interracial couple in South Africa. The challenging script calls for actors Carolyn Swift and Bill Grimmett to be nude during most of the play's duration. Other actors include Helen Hayes winner Jennifer Mendenhall and former Folger Theatre artistic director John Neville Andrews.

"It makes the theater in a contemporary urban society a real tribal event," Petosa says of the revolutionary approach to admissions. "It's not like {producer Joseph} Papp in Central Park where he has to bring in movie stars to get people to come. It's a dynamic group of actors performing in front of human beings in very close proximity."

For free. Call 863-9386 for reservations.

SOME PEOPLE love their work so much they take it home with them. For instance, there's Randy Whitescarver, production stage manager of "Starlight Express," the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical-on-roller-skates at the Kennedy Center Opera House. After the show, Whitescarver straps on his roller skates and careens down the Kennedy Center slope to his rented house in Georgetown -- he says it takes him three minutes. Then he wheels back to work in the morning. It's uphill, so it takes longer.

Whitescarver has been with "Starlight" for three years, since the Broadway opening; the show has taken him to Germany, too.

"I never roller-skated in my life before this show," he says. "But the performers would come off stage and complain about this and that, and then they'd say -- with real attitude -- 'Well, you couldn't understand -- you don't have wheels on your feet!' So I decided I had better learn."

Whitescarver learned to skate the hard way -- in New York City traffic, where, he says, "drivers don't freak out when you're skating at the same speed they're doing."

For his personal use, Whitescarver prefers the trendy new Rollerblades, but the skates used in the show are the traditional kind, because it's hard to dance -- and stop quickly -- on the blades. The "Starlight" tour designer and choreographer are experimenting with the blades for the actors who play the more futuristic trains, he says. While the "Starlight" company doesn't explicitly prohibit the performers from taking eight-wheeled trips around the city on their own time, "we don't encourage it, either," Whitescarver says. "Besides, most of them seem to get enough skating onstage".

"Starlight Express" continues through Sunday, then rolls on to Toronto. Call 467-4600. A COUPLE of really big shows closed last weekend: "Fences" boarded up at Arena, after running 13 weeks with two extensions. And "The Merry Wives of Windsor" took their final bows at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger after 11 weeks. "Wives," directed by Michael Kahn, was the theater's biggest grossing show ever -- surpassing even the company's "Twelfth Night." After celebrating her triumphant jovially gender-crossing turn as Sir John Falstaff, Pat Carroll packed her bags and headed down to North Carolina to play in "Nunsense" for a few weeks; she may perform "Nunsense" in Boston later this summer.