Caleen Sinnette Jennings didn't seem concerned about living up to big expectations last week as her play "Inns & Outs" neared its world premiere at Source Theatre. Jennings and the theater won a production grant from the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, but even that extra visibility didn't faze the American University drama prof, actor and playwright.

"I'm an educator, so I see everything in a continuum of learning. I see everything like a lab. Every night, I sit and I see something I should have done differently in the script," she said. "What's nice is to sit in on rehearsals and to remind myself that the actors are always smarter than the playwright."

Director Lisa Rose Middleton, on the other hand, sounded slightly less calm. "It's all self-pressure, you know," she said--as in, "I'm doing Caleen's play, and it won the Kennedy Center award, and I'm working with these wonderful actors, and they're challenging me and making me grow as a director, and--Oh my God!"

"Inns & Outs," at Source through Jan. 2, is a series of playlets about characters who stay at a New England bed-and-breakfast on various holidays. Their relationships and problems range from comic to serious, from marital to familial to racial, but all the stories are about "acceptance, forgiveness and communication," said Jennings. She said some theater folk whose opinions she sought have chided her for being too eager to resolve all her characters' problems. "I rarely leave things raggedy and painful," she admitted. "I like to think that a part of my mission is to show that you can even get through the tough stuff."

Entertaining Henley

Tall, loose-limbed and slender, Christopher Henley looks a decade younger than his 43 years. "I'm used to playing the young kid," he said, but for the run of Joe Orton's killer farce "Entertaining Mr. Sloane"--at the Washington Shakespeare Company through Dec. 19--Henley plays Ed, a forty-ish Englishman of questionable class, dubious education and murderous morals.

The role proved a physical challenge for Henley. "I'm usually real bouncy," he said. "We needed to kind of work against that." Onstage, he holds his body stiffly, in keeping with his character's perpetual state of prevarication. When Ed considers stealing away his spinster sister's young lover, Mr. Sloane, he never concedes his sexual motives.

"It's about self-delusion," said the actor. Orton's characters "rationalize their desires in order to go and pursue them . . . while maintaining the societal mask of being upright and having principles and behaving," Henley said. Orton "kind of took the Wildean comedy of manners to these really warped extremes." Like Oscar Wilde, Orton died young, murdered in 1967 at age 34 by his lover.

Dressing the Part

You would not believe what actor Jane Beard and wardrobe wrangler Andie Sante go through every night at Round House Theatre. As a dominatrix in Alan Ayckbourn's time-travel farce "Communicating Doors," Beard wears a $300 black latex number, formally dubbed The Dress by cast and crew. It came from the Dream Dresser sexy clothing shop in Georgetown.

"Dominatrixes, I hope, get paid a lot, because it costs a lot to get dressed to go to work," said Beard.

After her eight-inch stiletto-heeled boots are laced, she rubs a special oil all over every part of her that will touch The Dress. Then she and Sante spray the outside with something to make it shine and keep Beard's arms from sticking to it.

After The Dress makes its only appearance, in Act 1, Beard showers off the gunk and sweat while Sante washes, powders and wraps the delicate garment till the next night. If it should self-destruct--any pin prick could split it like a cracked windshield, Beard has "a back-up slip" in a similar style.

Meanwhile, at Studio Theatre, the crew looked to Germany for the ostrich costume that makes such a stunning appearance in Caryl Churchill's "Heart's Desire," running until Dec. 12. The script calls for a 10-foot bird. Director Serge Seiden learned that the Out of Joint Theatre Company in London, where the play premiered, had a lovely ostrich costume, only the company had lent it to a troupe in Cologne. That company sent it to Studio, and after delays at U.S. Customs (what's this thing made of?), it arrived the day before previews. The hollow bird is designed so its wearer walks backward, to make the legs appear to bend ostrichlike. Actor David Muse does it wearing size 13 ladies' heels. Don't ask.

Whippersnappers

Two new companies--Project Y and ASIA Theatre--want audiences not in the habit of attending plays and actors who don't "look the part."

"I really want to try to get people away from the computer screen and the Internet into the theater, which is a much more interactive environment," said Michole Biancosino, co-founder of Project Y.

She and fellow Middlebury College grad Andrew Smith will present "Lion in the Streets," by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, Thursday through Feb. 5 at D.C. Arts Center, in Adams-Morgan. Biancosino said the play, about characters who were abused and "strike out at other people in other ways," is full of great actors' moments for young, non-Equity performers usually relegated to tiny roles at bigger theaters.

Biancosino and Smith raised money by sending brochures to everyone they knew, asking for $15 donations. It worked. The Canadian Embassy also helped.

ASIA Theatre's name stands for Asian Stories in America. The group's first full production, "Big Hunk O' Burnin' Love," starts previews Sunday at the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington and runs through Jan. 8. The play, by Thai American writer Prince Gomolvilas, is about a Thai man who must marry before his 30th birthday or the family curse will befall him: He'll spontaneously combust.

Among ASIA's founders are costume designer-actor Edu. Bernardino and actor Stan Kang of the Washington Shakespeare Company, who'll direct "Big Hunk."

"There aren't a lot of parts out there for us," explained Bernardino. Even when Asian actors are required, he said, "I don't think they ever even look in town." Studio Theatre, for instance, found many of its Indian and Pakistani American actors for "Indian Ink" by announcing auditions on the Internet. Bernardino didn't expect to find more than 10 professional Asian American actors here. "I now have a list of maybe 40 actors in town. That really surprised me."

Call 202-462-7833 for Project Y; 703-418-9703 for ASIA Theatre.

Follow Spots

* Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and Horizons Theatre's Leslie Jacobson will talk about role models for women and the feminine aesthetic onstage in a free discussion tonight at 7:30 on the Mount Vernon campus of George Washington University. Call 703-243-8550.

* Studio Theatre will offer a pay-what-you-can performance of "Angelina Reaux Sings Songs and Deadly Sins," a taste of Weimar Berlin with music by Kurt Weill and his contemporaries, on Saturday at 7 p.m. Call 202-332-3300.

* Kenneth Branagh will receive the 2000 Gielgud award at a gala in London on Jan. 16. Presented by the Washington-based Shakespeare Guild, the Sir John Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts has recognized Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi in the past, both of whom are expected to attend (along with Gielgud himself). The doings will take place in the Middle Temple Hall--near the Old Bailey. Tickets for the London gala can be ordered at 202-483-8646.