A pre-rehearsal confab with the cast and creators of "Vaudeville! Humor on the 20th Century Stage" revealed a group of young performers positively bristling with tension as Thursday's opening night approaches at Washington Jewish Theatre in Rockville.

It was the combustible comic chemistry between co-stars Michael Stebbins and Bruce Nelson that gave them and WJT Artistic Directors Brette Goldstein and Ben Fishman the germ of an idea for "Vaudeville!"

"There's such an immediate, palpable comic sense," Nelson said of their rapport. "We're in each other's heads, mapping out the next bit."

Stebbins, a New York-based actor, spent most of August, September and part of October at the library on Fifth Avenue. "I sort of lived there for a while," he said, compiling 300 pages of material on the burlesque and vaudeville circuits, and comics such as Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and the team of Weber & Fields.

Along with playwright Allyson Currin and director Lee Mikeska Gardner, the troupe aims to re-create the skits and ethnic humor that were a staple of turn-of-the-century burlesque and the classier (and cleaner) vaudeville that came later. (The most insulting skits didn't make it past early rehearsals.) Currin's fictional "framing device" about the lives of two funnymen and a lady singer, she explained, will weave the bits together, in the manner of "show-biz-on-the-road-kind-of-team movies."

Maureen Kerrigan (the lead in American Century Theater's "Lady in the Dark") will play the classy chanteuse opposite Stebbins and Nelson as the up-and-coming comedy duo. Working herself into their two-way chemistry has been a challenge: "I feel like I'm playing jump rope--I'm trying to figure out where to jump in," she said.

As of last week, Currin was still writing, Gardner was reordering and the actors were re-rehearsing. "I think the lesson to take from this is pressure makes diamonds," said Currin.

Coming Home

"We're coming to D.C. and I've got to be in tip-top shape," said Rockville High alum Victoria Oscar, who plays the kid-hating Miss Hannigan in a touring production of "Annie," at the Warner Theatre tonight through Sunday. On the phone last week from Erie, Pa., Oscar said she was recovering from bronchitis--a hazard of life on the road--and wanted to be operating on all cylinders on her home turf.

While at Rockville High and Montgomery College, Oscar was active in summer drama programs and paid her dues at area dinner theaters before heading to New York. Her first job was in a musical version of "It's a Wonderful Life" at Toby's in 1988.

A self-described "larger-size woman" and "comedienne with a big voice," Oscar noted that some critics have compared her to Sophie Tucker. During her first seven years in New York, she waited tables and tried stand-up comedy and improv. This non-Equity tour of "Annie" is the first musical she's done since leaving home. "In that seven years, I took the time to get to know myself and what I really want out of life. And the opportunity came along to audition for this show, and I knew it [was time] to start this career."

Despite her mere 32 years, Oscar said she has no trouble convincing audiences that her Miss Hannigan is an over-the-hill harridan. "When I come out the stage door, people sometimes don't recognize me. . . . I guess the wig and the makeup and whatever I do out there work." A hundred friends and family will come to cheer Oscar's villainy Saturday evening.

Carried Away

Director-writer-actor Nick "Scoop" Olcott left two breathless messages on the Backstage answering machine recently. Waiting to see American Century Theater's closing night production of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," Olcott indignantly reported that the audience was locked out, a shutdown ordered by the Blitzstein estate in a dispute with the script licensing agency. Or so he thought.

Olcott's second message came a little later. It was a retraction.

"I decided I had to call you back and confess I was an idiot," he said in a live phone call last week. "Rake me over the coals. I felt like such a goober afterwards, and deserve it."

As Backstage wrote last month, the lockout was designed by Artistic Director Jack Marshall to recall the play's legendary 1937 premiere, when the Federal Theater Project closed it down for fear of Blitzstein's radical politics.

"I wanted it to be true," Olcott later said of his willing suspension of disbelief. "The little kid going to the circus part of me kicked in."

Page to Stage

The haunting beauty of "The Idiot," Dostoevsky's novel as staged by the Stanislavsky Theater Studio with dialogue, dance and mime, took months to develop. Actors and apprentices, many of them non-dancers, studied with company choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili and her husband, Paata, the strikingly gifted mime who plays the lead role. "It was very challenging, but they created miracles with their dedication," said STS co-founder Andrei Malaev-Babel, who directed the play with Paata.

"The design of the show depended virtually on the decision which parts should be conveyed through text and which parts should be conveyed through the movement and the dance," Malaev-Babel translated for Irina. In the second half, as the mind of Dostoevsky's hero unravels, the story is told with less dialogue and finally none at all. "I don't know any other way to do a 400-page novel," Malaev-Babel said, "because to stage it traditionally, you would probably have to do it in four evenings."

The Tsikurishvilis have teamed artistically since their days in Soviet Georgia and at the Mimodrama theater founded by Paata in Saarbrucken, Germany. In tentative English, Irina described how she and her husband percolate creatively: "I got some idea, and Paata got some idea, and we had argument; the best idea wins over."

Follow Spots

* Source Theatre Company will hold a benefit matinee performance of the new play "Inns and Outs" by Caleen Sinnette Jennings on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The playwright and cast will join a reception after the show. Jennings, whose play is about characters who frequent a New England bed and breakfast, was one of the 1999 grantees of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. Tickets are $50. Call 202-966-6966.

* Tomorrow through Dec. 10 at the Lincoln Theatre, African Continuum Theatre Company (ACT Co.) will present a series of staged readings of plays by African American writers from every decade of this century. They range from an early musical, "In Dahomey," to "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole World" by the very current Suzan-Lori Parks, as well as Amiri Baraka's "Dutchman" and August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Call 202-529-5763.

* A new musical for kids 8 and older will play Saturday and Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. "David's Big Secret" is about a boy who's unhappy with himself, but it carries a message about acceptance. Call 703-323-7965.

* Arena Stage will allow the public to peek at rehearsals for "Guys and Dolls" on Saturday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Director Charles Randolph-Wright and cast members will offer an "in-depth" look at their fresh take on the vintage musical. Tickets are $10, $5 for students. Call 202-488-3300 or 202-484-0247 (TTY).

CAPTION: Victoria Oscar's Miss Hannigan learns of Annie's good fortune from Grace Farrell (Kimberly Stout).

CAPTION: "We're in each other's heads . . .," says Bruce Nelson, co-star of "Vaudeville!"