"Hot 'n' Throbbing"

Through Oct. 17

Arena Stage

Tickets: 202/488-3300

Almost since the first days that Molly Smith came here last year to head Arena, playwright Paula Vogel has been part of the package. Smith and Vogel met years ago as students in Catholic University's drama department, so it is fitting that they have continued their artistic collaboration back where it all began. Vogel is Arena's first associate artist -- akin to a playwright-in-residence -- and her "How I Learned to Drive" closed the theater's 1998-99 season.

The 1999-2000 season has opened with Vogel's "Hot 'n' Throbbing," and like "How I Learned to Drive," it deals with rarely discussed subjects of abuse and manipulation within the family. In "Hot 'n' Throbbing," a woman losing her grip on her two hormonally charged teenage children gets caught up in a train wreck between her violent-tempered husband and her own unquenched desires. (Pictured above, from left, are Colin Lane as the husband, Danny Pintauro as the son and Lynnda Ferguson as the woman.)

The story and the issues raised are so volatile that even Vogel wasn't quite settled with them. The playwright made changes to the script all throughout the rehearsal process.

"She's a perfectionist," says Smith, who directed the play. "She was very much married to this play."

Vogel was even rewriting the ending shortly before opening night last week. One night after a preview performance, Smith says, "she came running over to me and said, `I've got the ending!' And we went into the prop shop and she told me how it had to end." The new ending involves a terrific acting challenge for Rhea Seehorn, who plays the daughter, a new voiceover and a moment of unaccustomed and chilling silence.

Now, associate artist or no, wouldn't a director find it irksome to have the writer hanging around and making life difficult? "Oh no," Smith says. "It was fantastic. Paula has a big theater brain. She is very theatrical in her ideas. And she has the warmth of a mother -- she's very enveloping."

Look for more from Vogel next season; she is currently at work on "A Civil War Christmas," a historical play about three soldiers in Washington. "Because of my long association with Paula, she'll be writing more plays for us," says Smith, "plays that take us into the heart of the D.C. community."