David Sabin proudly pointed to one of his padded Falstaffian bellies, complete with navel. The apparatus still hung on a coat stand in his air-conditioned dressing room behind the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. He needs several bellies, he explained, to change into when one gets too sweaty. He boasts a 62-inch waist when he's all put together as a 1950s, nightclub-singing Falstaff--complete with bad toupees and sport jackets.

It was cool but damp last Thursday, about half an hour before the 7:30 curtain of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the Shakespeare Theatre's free show. (It's a reprise of last season's mainstage production and runs through Sunday.)

The scene backstage was like day camp. Actor Ed Gero was barbecuing chicken, veggies and corn on the cob with stage manager Pat Hodge (who brought a filet mignon) and others. Eve Michelson tossed a ball to her pit bull, Mack, joined by 11-year-old Amani and 8-year-old Mary, daughters of Shakespeare Theatre veteran Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Dorn, who moved to Austin, Tex., with her family last summer, came back to play Mistress Quickly. ("Austin's fab," said Dorn, who's starting an online theater company to showcase new plays.)

Gero brought his son, Christian, 11, nearly a nightly occurrence. "It's great; the kids love it," he said. They especially enjoy doing odd jobs around the stage and helping with the drawing of door prizes.

A few actors juggled bowling pins. Shakespearean clown Floyd King ambled by looking every bit an insurance salesman in the gray suit and fedora of his character, Master Ford.

Suddenly, it's time: Dorn, in a hat like a Calder mobile, Sabin in his belly, the whole company in their heightened 1950s get-up, head for the stage.

The Shoulders of Giants

"I'm learning to be patient," said Ari Roth, artistic director at Theater J. But the producer-playwright, going into his third season there, is itching to increase his theater's tiny subscriber base and build support for new plays with Jewish and urban themes.

"What we've discovered--and it's no secret--is that the most difficult sell in Washington, D.C., is to get people to come to a brand-new play that they've never heard of," said Roth.

Filling the elegant 236-seat Cecile Goldman Theater in the D.C. Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q streets NW has been tough even with often positive reviews of Theater J's productions. The center closes Friday evenings and Saturdays until sundown for the Sabbath, so Theater J has no Friday night shows or Saturday matinees. But Roth sounded determined to hit 1999-2000 at full throttle.

"We're picking plays by playwrights with big shoulders and playwrights who sell. And we're proud to do them," he said. Those big shoulders belong to Arthur Miller and Neil Simon (channeling Chekhov).

The season will open with three recent one-acts by Miller, under the title "Danger: Memory!" (Oct. 30-Nov. 28). They are "The Ryan Interview," about a young Jewish journalist interviewing a 100-year-old man; "I Can't Remember Anything," in which two bereaved neighbors connect; and "The Last Yankee," about two men waiting to visit their wives, patients in a psychiatric hospital.

"American-Moscow Fusion: A Festival" begins with Simon's "The Good Doctor" (Jan. 15-Feb. 13), a rendering of several Anton Chekhov stories, to be directed and performed by Russian and Georgian emigres from the Stanislavsky Theater Studio in Silver Spring. Actor-writer Josh Kornbluth will drop in from Berkeley, Calif., to perform his comic piece "Red Diaper Baby" (only Feb. 17-20), about growing up with communist parents. Roth's own "Life in Refusal" (March 4-April 2), about an American woman's visits with a Russian refusenik, will have its world premiere. Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" (April 29-June 4), an off-Broadway success, will close the season. "Stories" traces the relationship between writer Ruth Steiner and a student who later betrayed her secrets.

Call 202-518-9400, Ext. 229.

No Place to Call Home

The Washington Stage Guild has no sure place, it now appears, to present its 1999-2000 season, but its prospects may have improved. It's been promised $200,000 by a Washington developer to facilitate a move out of its longtime home at Carroll Hall at 924 G St. NW into a new downtown venue.

Carroll Hall is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, as is a nearby property at 975 F St. NW. The archdiocese plans to turn Carroll Hall into headquarters for Catholic Charities and lease its F Street buildings to the John Akridge Cos., for renovation into retail and office space. Stage Guild Artistic Director John MacDonald and Executive Director Ann Norton have been told there'll be no place for a small theater in either the F or G street development. Efforts by the archdiocese to find them a new space have so far not panned out and the gutting of Carroll Hall may start as soon as this fall.

So last month John Akridge's Tom Wilbur offered Stage Guild the lump sum in return for MacDonald and Norton's testimony about the developer's offer of help to a cultural institution and support of the F Street project--at public hearings. The money is still contingent on the developer receiving final approval from the city.

Meanwhile, Stage Guild is also part of a proposal by the Forest City Development Corp. to build on General Services Administration property on Seventh Street NW between D and E streets. Forest City is one of four finalists bidding for the GSA lot. Arena Stage is part of the highest profile bid. Since a GSA decision may not come until August, the Stage Guild remains in limbo.

Follow Spots

* Source Theatre will offer 2-for-1 tickets for Nicky Silver's familial implosion farce, "Pterodactyls." The twofers are available for Wednesday and Thursday nights, and Saturday and Sunday matinees through June 27. Call 202-462-1073.

* GALA Hispanic Theatre recovered from a small fire at its Park Road NW space last Tuesday in time to continue weekend performances of "Voces Andinas: The Soul of the Highlands."

* The Keegan Theatre will take its current production of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" to an arts festival in Galway, Ireland, late this summer. "Streetcar" continues through June 26 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang in Arlington. Call 703-757-1180 for tickets and information on following the Keegan-ites to Ireland.

* A benefit performance of "One Bad Apple," a musical based on the Adam and Eve story, will take place at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater on Monday at 8 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Mary House, which offers transitional housing to homeless families. Locally based composer Deborah Wicks La Puma wrote the music, with book and lyrics by Raphe Beck and Christopher La Puma. It's $35 for adults, $20 for students. Call 703-751-8109.

CAPTION: Clowning around: Melanie Koontz assists David Sabin, who plays Falstaff, with his belly padding.

CAPTION: A bite before work: Actor Ed Gero barbecues at Carter Barron as stage manager Pat Hodge approaches.