The playwright, director and cast of "Courting Chris," extended through Oct. 3 at the Church Street Theater, can't believe what's happening with the fizzy gay-and-straight romantic farce they've uncorked.

"We had a reading, the reading went very well--much better than I expected," recalled playwright Sam Schwartz Jr. last week of the play's nonprofessional tryout last spring. There was a workshop production in June, all sponsored by the community-based Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and Theater Alliance. Then, said Schwartz, "It took off."

The 42-year-old Schwartz has a graduate degree in dramatic writing but makes his living scripting training videos. He teaches playwriting with the Theater Alliance and has created several one-acts on gay themes for performance at its space on Seventh and G streets SE. "Courting Chris" sprang from Schwartz's brain when he and his straight female friend Betsy, both newly single, commiserated about the evils of dating and wondered, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could control each other's dates?"

From that he spun a tale of love and friendship in which a gay guy helps his straight pal woo a girl named Chris, after which his straight buddy helps him charm a guy named Chris. The relationships flower, then falter, then flourish, in farcical--some might say sitcom--style. "It's very much a light comedy," agreed Schwartz. "It's not meant to ruffle feathers or unsettle people in any way."

The play garnered such an enthusiastic response in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that Church Street's Edward McGee offered a commercial run. "Courting Chris" opened in the 125-seat Dupont Circle space Aug. 19 after brief rehearsals to incorporate two new cast members and a tricky scene called "the telephone fugue." The show earned generally positive reviews, though not universal raves, and word-of-mouth has turned it into a near sellout, with talk of out-of-town producers coming to take a look.

Director Jeff Keenan (last season's "My Night With Reg"), sitting onstage with the cast after a performance last week, said, "There's still more that we can do. . . . This is only the second rewrite of the play, which is really quite amazing." Indeed, Schwartz, Keenan and cast have been tinkering all along. Peter Finnegan, who plays Sean (straight guy in love with the female Chris), got Schwartz to include the name of the Adams-Morgan cafe where he works.

Some audience members, a mix of gay and straight, young and middle-age, have made return visits. The cast members, all under 30, have found they're occasionally recognized on the street. "It's so surreal," said Christina Anderson (the female Chris) of her new, higher profile. "No one recognized me," said Jason Gilbert, who plays Ben (in love with male Chris), with mock hurt. Doubtless they will.

Everyone involved seemed slightly unsettled by all the buzz. "It's neat to hear about this stuff," explained Carlos Bustamante (the male Chris), "but I believe that none of it'll really happen. Then if it does happen, it's a nice surprise."

The "Courting Chris" Web site:

Argentine Inspiration

GALA Hispanic Theatre artistic director Hugo Medrano returned from Argentina last week all fired up over a stage production he saw in Buenos Aires. He's determined to reincarnate it in Washington next season.

Medrano returned to his native country (he left in 1966 and has only returned for family visits) with several American artistic directors to observe the state of theater there a decade and a half after the return of democracy. What he found was an artistic community searching for a new creative language to replace the allegorical one it had invented to survive under the old regime. "Now that the barrier is broken, they are kind of in limbo," Medrano said last week.

He saw a stubborn insistence on looking back to 19th-century drama and always to Europe. "I was trying to talk about directors in Peru or in Colombia or in Venezuela; it was like a strange language to them."

What finally zapped Medrano's artistic nerve endings was a nonprofessional troupe in a poor neighborhood called La Boca, near the port of Buenos Aires. Its show "Fulgor Argentino" (Argentine shine or brilliance) featured 175 people from the barrio performing music, dance and drama. "They introduce their own music, their own problems in the barrio," Medrano recalled. "You see a show that not even Broadway could do. The spontaneity, the acting, the responsibility, the discipline that these 175 people had was incredible."

He intends to apply for a grant to the Theater Communications Group, which sponsored his trip, to help GALA do a similar show with Washington's Latino community.

Medrano co-stars in GALA's first play of this season, "La Granada/The Hand Grenade," a political farce by Argentina's Rodolfo Walsh, who "disappeared" during the dictatorship. It opens on the 23rd.

Cherry Red

Cherry Red Productions will open its no-description-necessary 1999-2000 season with a reprise of "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack" (Oct. 1-Nov. 20) at the Metro Cafe (1522 14th St. NW). Next is the premiere of a play by artistic director Ian Allen, "Baked Baby" (Feb. 11-March 11), at the D.C. Arts Center (2438 18th St. NW). Finally, "Zombie Attack!" (June 15-July 22) will run at Studio 1019, the space at 1019 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-675-3071.

Follow Spots

Source Theatre Company, beginning its first full season of performances on the stage of its renovated space at 1835 14th St. NW, will offer pay-what-you-can previews of David Mamet's incendiary urban drama "Edmond" tomorrow and Thursday. Tickets for Friday's final preview are $15. Call 202-462-1073.

Woolly Mammoth's Foreplay series of free play readings begins Monday at 7:30 with "Finer Noble Gases," a comedy by Adam Rapp about the antics of a young rock band. Call 202-393-3939, ext. 525.

Twenty-four artistic directors, including Arena's Molly Smith and Woolly Mammoth's Howard Shalwitz, have signed a fund-raising letter for the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive. The collection of (so far) 135 videotaped stage productions resides in the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Library at 901 G St. NW. Funding for the shoestring operation has come mostly from grants, but director (and lone cameraman) James J. Taylor wants to raise WAPAVA'S profile among individual theatergoers.

The Shakespeare Theatre may have a tragedy ("King Lear") onstage, but back in the office they're gleeful. Last season's "Merchant of Venice," directed by Michael Kahn with Hal Holbrook as Shylock, was the highest grossing show in its history. And season subscribers now number 16,600, with a renewal rate of 84 percent.

CAPTION: Hugo Medrano as Lt. Strauss in "La Granada" at GALA Hispanic Theatre.

CAPTION: Cutting straight to the farce: Christina Anderson and Peter Finnegan in "Courting Chris" at Church Street Theater.