XYZ THEATRE COMAPNY'S PRODUCTION OF THE DAVID MAMET PLAY "SQUIRRELS" RUNS THROUGH SEPT.11 AT THE D.C. ARTS CENTER. AN ARTICLE IN WEDNESDAY'S STYLE SECTION GAVE AN INCORRECT ENDING DATE. (PUBLISHED 08/27/99)

Two guys in a room pitch scenarios to each other about a man who goes into a park, gets attacked by a squirrel and kills the squirrel. This is the situation in "Squirrels," a very early David Mamet play being revived by the XYZ Theatre Company at the D.C. Arts Center.

The stories are (pardon the pun) nuts. "What does it mean?" asks Edmond, the assistant. Arthur, the writer, the more powerful of the two, answers in gibberish and goes on formulating squirrel scenarios. This, to them, is writing.

Arthur's foil is a cleaning woman with no name. The specifics are a little vague, but Arthur and the cleaning woman have a personal and a professional history together. The cleaning woman writes, too, and her stories are also nuts--improbable adventures about the Wild West, or about fleeing the Canadian Mounties across the Bering Strait to Russia. But at least she has imagination, soul, a sense of romance.

"Squirrels" features Mamet's familiar terse rhythms, offbeat postgraduate vocabulary (people need to lay to rest the myth that Mamet is or ever was all profanity), and an intent that is at once pedantic and satiric. True fans of Mamet might get a kick from spotting early influences: hints of "American Buffalo" in the bush-league power plays between the men, glimpses of "Speed-the-Plow" in the off-the-point arguments about art, snatches of "Oleanna" in the interest in shadings of syntax.

But unless the characters are going to start knocking one another around over it (as in "Oleanna"), syntax per se isn't very dramatic. And while Mamet has some things on his mind about aesthetics and ethics, the execution is murky, and the young writer still hadn't really figured out how to keep an audience hooked on something as arcane as multiple scenarios involving squirrels. This is a play--as tedious as it is quirky--that only a scholar or an artist could love, which probably explains why XYZ has chosen "Squirrels" as its maiden production.

In fact, director Sally Story pledges her allegiance to Mamet's Practical Aesthetics Technique in the company's bio. Some of Mamet's ideas about theater practice sound nuts; his advice to actors can seem like an edict against acting, but when you see a master Mamet player like William H. Macy at work, it all seems brilliant.

No telling just where XYZ will go with this mission, but they know their business here. Story keeps the focus clean and the actors' mannerisms down to nothing. Siobhan O'Malley is particularly a tease with this material; as the cleaning woman, she slides in and out of the office (strewed from end to end with crumpled papers) with a mysterious smirk and tosses off lines like "Oh, I've got more dialogue" as if she talks like that all the time.

The men aren't quite as assured, but Mamet hasn't made their characters as interesting, either. Timothy Maher's Arthur bullies and pontificates but is basically a one-joke figure, while Edmond (Nathan Shelkey, doing the best he can with an arsenal of confusion and frustration) seems to exist simply so he can be positioned between Arthur and the cleaning woman.

Dramatically, that's a no-brainer. But given that Story and O'Malley show a lot of poise here, XYZ certainly could have chosen a worse calling card.

Squirrels, by David Mamet. Directed by Sally Story. Lighting, Matt Gawryk; set/props, Christie Kelly; costume/hair designer, Frederick Hawck. At the D.C. Arts Center through Sept. 5. Call 202-462-7833.

CAPTION: Crazy critters: Nathan Shelkey, Siobhan O'Malley and Timothy Maher in David Mamet's "Squirrels," the maiden production of XYZ Theatre Company.

CAPTION: Shelkey and Maher trade bush-league power plays.