"Life," everyone keeps saying in "Isn't It Romantic," "is a negotiation." Janie Blumberg, the principal character of Wendy Wasserstein's 1981 comedy (rewritten and re-produced in 1983), is negotiating to have one. It's not easy. She has to ward off the suffocating protection of her parents, the hypocritical advice of her best friend and the advances of her doctor-boyfriend, who shows signs of being a chauvinist in a dream-man's clothing. If she succeeds, she will be able to pursue her freelance writing career, armed with her honor and self-respect, essential weapons to help combat that frightful '80s chimera, "being alone."

Janie's best friend and co-crusader in the same struggle, Harriet, is a Harvard MBA. She lands a job with Colgate-Palmolive, sleeps with her married boss, an abusive creep, and has argumentative luncheons with her mother, a highly successful executive. "There's nothing wrong with being alone," Harriet preaches to Janie, then plunges into marriage with the first man who asks her. Janie is angry and hurt.

Members of the audience at the Washington Jewish Theatre in Rockville might be too, if they paused long enough between the stand-up comedy gags in the dialogue to reflect on what the playwright is trying to sell here. Beneath the thick underbrush of cliche characters and punch lines lurks a social commentary that purports to take a mildly feminist line: it takes courage for a woman to try to make it on her own. But even this obvious point is sabotaged by Wasserstein's muddy thinking and inept handling of her own "content."

Janie, who has brains, looks, a "nice Jewish doctor" who loves her and parents who stop over in the morning with a mink coat for their darling daughter, has to suffer to get what she wants. Harriet, who has looks, an expensive education and a high-paying job, also must suffer "to have it all." Harriet's mother, the one successful woman in career terms, is belittled as coldhearted and a television junkie. Everyone else, to greater or lesser degree, is a nerd. The one thing they have in common is that they are extraordinarily self-absorbed. It takes a little sympathy to build belief in a character.

In fact, the playwright's message is only a bearnaise sauce trying to liven up a dish of beans and franks. The dialogue has so strong a flavor of a TV sitcom, one expects the scenes to be interrupted with ads for aspirin and snow tires. Wasserstein wants to score her social points and build our interest, but like a wayward dieter reaching for another after-dinner mint, she can't stay away from the easy laugh. Even when at last a bit of sympathy starts to stick to these Teflon characters, in slips the joke and the moment is lost in the chuckles. Harriet, in despair, appeals to her mother to advise her: If you have it all, she asks -- a relationship, children, a career, friends, an exercise program etc. -- then what is there left to want? "Needlepoint," her mother answers. "You desperately want to needlepoint."

Too bad, because everyone involved in this production does an expert job with what he or she is given. Laurie Wessely Wagner's direction is sharp, fast-paced and witty, and her casting is perfect. Paula Gruskiewicz plays Janie with an appealing mix of anguish and self-deprecating humor and has a natural presence that fills the stage. Kimberly Schraf as Harriet deftly makes the transitions from humor to anger. James Glossman is particularly convincing as Marty the schleppy doctor-boyfriend, and the regal-looking Jean Harrison is excellent as the executive-mother. The others in the eight-member cast are equally good. This is a perfect case of a team of performers far outclassing its material.

In the end, it is the acting that saves the evening. And there are plenty of laughs to keep everyone happy. The danger is in taking this snapshot of '80s New York as seriously as the playwright wants us to.

Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein. Directed by Laurie Wessely Wagner; sets by Joseph B. Musumeci; costumes by Rosemary Pardee; lighting by David B. Sislen; sound by Neil McFadden. With Paula Gruskiewicz, Kimberly Schraf, James Glossman, Constance Fowlkes, Stu Kravits, Jean Harrison, Scott Morgan, David Dossey. At the Washington Jewish Theatre, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, through Nov. 4.