If any actor looks like a living, breathing Al Hirschfeld caricature, it's J. Fred Shiffman. As Tony Cavendish, stage star turned silent-movie idol in "The Royal Family" at Arena Stage, he lends his lanky frame to grand gestures and infantile rants, delighting all theatergoers, be they cynics or sentimentalists.

A two-time Helen Hayes Award winner (for "Falsettoland" at Studio and that delicious Spanish fop in Arena's "Lovers and Executioners"), Shiffman has teamed again with former artistic director Doug Wager, who has continued to stage one or two plays a season at Arena.

Shiffman and Wager first worked together in the 1970s. "Doug knows my arsenal, so we move very quickly through a project and speak in shorthand," said Shiffman of their rehearsal process. And Wager said of Shiffman: "He's not a wild man in rehearsal. . . . He'll allow you to give him a shape and a rhythm."

"The Royal Family," George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 dramedy, swerves from farce to melodrama in its portrayal of a family of actors based loosely on the Barrymores. The play, Wager said, is "imbued with a certain sense of strangeness--the sort of hothouse nature of the arts." It's also, he said, "about how we define the nature of success."

In Wager's own case, though he's been approached about other artistic directorships, he doesn't want more administrative worries so soon. And the life of a freelance theater director--who, if successful, is never home--doesn't appeal financially or familially. Nearing 50 and a newish dad, Wager plans to sell his Capitol Hill home and move with wife Eileen and daughter Miranda to Los Angeles, where he hopes he'll get to direct TV drama and eventually film. As a theater maven, he's been an invited "observer" on the sets of television's "Ally McBeal," "Law & Order" and "The Practice," learning and networking.

In August he's scheduled to stage Lisa Loomer's play "Expecting Isabel" (which he did at Arena last season) at L.A.'s prestigious Mark Taper Forum. He's working with Loomer on the screenplay and hopes to interest some producer in making it into an independent film--with Wager directing. "I'm going there with my eyes wide open," Wager said of his foray into Hollywood, although the "people I've met so far on that side of the business have all been people of integrity [with] no less of a sense of pride in their work."

As for Shiffman, he's 46, happily acting in one play a year and working full time as an executive with the Abramson Labus Van De Velde advertising agency. He once had a big-time agent and was nearly chosen to join "Saturday Night Live," but he and his wife decided against New York or L.A. Shiffman has no agent now. Washington directors just call him, and once a season, he answers.

"I love the business world and using the other side of my brain," he said, but "every once in a while I need a good dose of creativity. And luckily, this fabulous city has made it very easy for me to do a good show whenever I'd like." (Other actors, that's your cue to growl.) "It's really a lovely existence," Shiffman said. "There's no way around it."

A Born 'Salesman'

The lightning bolt struck director Jim Petosa while he watched actor Traber Burns rehearse last year in David Hare's "Racing Demon" at Olney Theatre Center. Burns played with soul-stirring authenticity a troubled English cleric, unhappy at home and shaky in his faith.

"He hit a certain emotional key, and the thought just went from my head, 'Oh my God, that's Willy Loman!' A few days passed, [and] I kept mulling this around," recalled Petosa last week. Soon after, "I decided to share with him my own epiphany, and I said, 'Traber, what would you feel about playing Willy Loman?' "

Burns remembered that his reply was something like "Of course, absolutely."

At 50, he's 13 years younger than Arthur Miller's beaten-down, self-deluded hero in "Death of a Salesman," but it's a physically exhausting role. "I don't want to get bored doing this kind of work; so the bigger the challenge, the more fun it is," the itinerant, New York-based character actor said on the phone after an evening performance last week.

The "Salesman" challenge was gargantuan. "It actually overwhelmed me the first day we just sat down and read it," Burns said. "You realized what a daunting task it was going to be, and also what an incredible help the script itself was going to be to you." Early rehearsals, when the director and actors dig into the guts of the play, brought his own feelings to the surface, Burns said. "During that time it was hard to sleep at night sometimes. . . . There'd be a lot that'd be going through you, because you'd be remembering things about your own life. That's the hardest part, when it's not technical at all."

Technical complexities came later, because Miller messes with time; it's all in Willy's jumbled memory (the original title was "The Inside of His Head"). "Sometimes the play itself just grabs you, and you didn't realize you were going to be, for instance, crying at a certain moment," explained the actor. "At that moment, you have to be very careful. You still have things to do in the play."

Burns mused: "There've been other hard roles, but nothing that has this kind of sustained requirement onstage. It seems like I'm always out there. . . . I guess it's like Sisyphus; just push the rock up the hill." Through Nov. 7, anyway.

Follow Spots

* Nobody at Studio Theatre interrupts artistic director Joy Zinoman while she's teaching an acting class, but this one time staffers had to. Playwright Tom Stoppard was on the phone from his home in France. Stoppard("Arcadia," "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "Travesties" and the pithiest parts of the "Shakespeare in Love" screenplay) had heard such nice things about Studio's production of his "Indian Ink" that he wondered if he could see it and meet the cast. He's scheduled to come during the first weekend in December. "Ink" has been extended--again--through Dec. 5.

* Washington Jewish Theatre kicks off its second annual cabaret series tonight with "Broadway Today," a revue showing how musical theater has evolved from "Cats" to "Rent." The show also plays on Oct. 31, Nov. 2 and Nov. 16 at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. Call 301-230-3775.

* "Sex Isn't Everything!" is the title of an evening of spoofs and songs to be presented Monday evening at Arena Stage's Old Vat Room to benefit the Playwrights Forum, a group that helps area playwrights, composers and lyricists learn their craft. Songs will be performed by tunesmiths Joan Cushing ("Mrs. Foggybottom"), Roy Barber, Deborah Wicks La Puma and others. Tickets are $35. Call 202-625-0716.

* The Georgetown Theatre Company will present "Haunted Theatre," a new, family-oriented play about the friendly ghost that supposedly lurks in the National Theatre, on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre. Call 202-357-1500.

* "Mud," by respected avant-garde playwright Maria Irene Fornes, is playing through Dec. 4 at the new Warehouse Theater at 1021 Seventh St. NW. It's a presentation of the District of Columbia Arts Center and the new Exposed Brick Theatre Company. Fornes's body of work is also the focus all season at New York's Signature Theatre. Call 202-462-7833.

* Director Jim Petosa will discuss the works of Arthur Miller after Sunday's matinee performance of the playwright's "Danger: Memory!" by Theatre J at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. The topic is "Arthur Miller's Jewish Non-Jewish Plays."

CAPTION: J. Fred Shiffman strikes a theatrical pose in Arena Stage's "The Royal Family."

CAPTION: Traber Burns and Anne Stone in "Death of a Salesman" at the Olney Theatre Center.