A photo caption accompanying a review of the play "The Chemistry of Change" in yesterday's Style section misidentified the actors. They are Stephen F. Schmidt and Helen Hedman. (Published 09/16/1999)

Maybe you've been wondering what Satan was up to, oh, about 45 years ago. According to Marlane Meyer's "The Chemistry of Change," he was basically a good-guy entrepreneur running "Hell Hole," a carny stand on the seedy outskirts of Long Beach, Calif. As a premise for a screwball comedy, it's pretty good. But on the level of modern allegory--the Garden of Eden overrun by bad '50s architecture and the emotionally stunted--the script gets into trouble.

Round House Theatre's production, directed by Sue Ott Rowlands, focuses as much as possible on matters earthly and earthy, particularly where they concern the human heart. And that's pretty good, too, because despite its pretensions to symbolism, the play's strength is its goofy if conventional take on a dysfunctional family.

It's 1955, and Lee (Helen Hedman) is a middle-aged mother who has essentially supported her four kids by being a professional divorcee. Nine husbands and their settlement payments have come and gone, and while on her way to meet the man she's decided will be Meal Ticket No. 10, she runs into the Devil himself, herewith calling himself Smokey (Stephen F. Schmidt).

No surprise: He seduces her. Surprise: He falls in love with her. And she with him.

But when she brings him home, where three of her adult children still live and the fourth keeps coming back to (when sober and not in jail), all hell breaks loose. Lee's sister, Dixon (Kimberly Schraf), who also lives there, finds Smokey attractive, but the kids all want him gone: He's a threat to the deeply sick needs and insecurities that have tied them to Mom and Mom to them.

Take, for example, Corlis (Jane Beard), Lee's homely daughter whose one chance at love Lee wrecked long ago, and who sees her mission in life as carrying on her mother's hatred of men. Her dream is to be a nurse one day--in order to wear "something clean and white and write on some man's chart 'Do not resuscitate!' " How will Corlis ever get Mom's approval if she now loves men?

Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.'s set, a dilapidated Southern Californian bungalow, complete with sofa in back yard, grounds the feel of the action nicely. Rosemary Pardee's costumes are a trip back in time by themselves. Martha Mountain's lighting and Scott Burgess's sound (including original music) subtly complement the setting.

The real payoff, though, is the acting. Hedman gives a warm, comic performance of a toxic matriarch who spectacularly uses and abuses her kids. Beard and Marty Lodge, who plays her tormentor-brother, are, once again, a pleasure to watch (they've been paired in one way or another in a number of Round House shows). Like Jonathan Tindle and Christopher C. Walker, who play the other two siblings, they use cynicism to cover their characters' pathos and vulnerability. But the script gives Beard and Lodge more opportunities to exploit those emotions in each other.

Schraf smartly gives the rough-edged Dixon some soft, but not stupid, edges. As Smokey, Schmidt is an impressive display of confidence, charm and more than a little swagger, but he doesn't project any sense of genuine danger.

Neither, however, does the script, though it wants to. There are intimations of disturbing inversions--Evil Incarnate as catalyst for exorcising personal demons, for example--but Meyer only flirts with these things, retreating into her family farce whenever they start to demand clarification or development.

Rowlands doesn't try to do any of that for Meyer, as well she shouldn't: Though sometimes forced and self-conscious, the humor of the play is enough like brimstone--i.e., sulfurous and solid--to carry things. Just don't expect it to take you anywhere.

The Chemistry of Change, by Marlane Meyer. Directed by Sue Ott Rowlands. Through Oct. 3 at Round House Theatre. 301-933-1644.

CAPTION: Stephen F. Schmidt and Jane Beard in Round House's "Chemistry of Change."