The show had been cast, the sets designed. All that was missing was the $60,000 or so to put it on.

The cancellation of the planned February production of "The Threepenny Opera" at Washington Jewish Theatre in Rockville was a "tremendous disappointment" to director Joe Banno. "It's a piece that I've been wanting to do for about 15 years," he said.

Sheila Bellack, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, where WJT performs and which funds it, said last week that the show "couldn't pay for itself." The group already suffered a "fairly significant" deficit from its two previous productions, a stylized version of Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine," and the work-in-progress "Vaudeville! Humor on the 20th Century Stage," she said. Averaging less than 35 percent of capacity in the 300-seat theater, the two shows left a roughly $50,000 deficit in the WJT operating budget, Bellack said.

The rest of the season will go on as scheduled, including two cabarets and a play produced with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but Bellack said the center will appoint a panel to study the theater's audience, funding and artistic goals.

WJT has been struggling to find an identity in the theater community for 12 years, often presenting sentimental mainstream fare. But for the past season and a half, it has been run by Benjamin Fishman and Brette Goldstein, artistically ambitious theater folk a few years out of the University of Maryland's drama department with on-the-job experience at Olney Theatre Center, Source Theatre Company and Washington Shakespeare Company between them. Their risky productions at WJT earned mixed critical reviews and mixed audience response.

Goldstein, still smarting from the "Threepenny" decision when she spoke to Backstage two weeks ago, noted that the JCC has no fund-raising arm for the theater. "Unless the theater becomes an independent entity with its own development staff . . . there really shouldn't be a professional theater here," she said. "We decided we wanted to make this theater legitimate and do good art," she added. "The audiences were warming up to us. If they want to bring back 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah' every year, I think that there is a need for that," said Goldstein. "But I don't think Ben and I should produce it."

Bellack had only praise for the two artistic directors. "I think they have done a great job. They have created a tremendous amount of excitement about theater. We as an agency . . . need to find the financial support to make theater viable," she said.

While acknowledging that many people expect theater at a community center to be lower-priced and "folksier," Bellack was emphatic that the JCC won't abandon the idea of offering theater, alongside the dance and concert series it presents. "We really want to make it clear--we are not trying not to do theater here. We are not trying to get rid of Brette and Ben." Bellack said she hoped the panel's study would be finished by May or June, in time to announce the next WJT season.

All About Keith

For the sake of his art, Keith Hamilton Cobb, muscular, 6 feet 4, is willing to cut the soft dreadlocks that hang past his shoulders. Fortunately, he won't have to for his role as Aufidius, battlefield rival of the title character in "Coriolanus," opening Sunday at the Shakespeare Theatre.

Relaxing in an apartment near the theater last week, Cobb sipped a protein drink (orange juice, protein powder, strawberries, bananas) and talked of his life, his acting and his hair. This is an actor who has set up a Web site (www.keithhamiltoncobb.com) for his fans. They can see pictures tracing his career and the evolution of his do. They can read his New Age musings on acting and life. Cobb is also featured, he told Backstage, in the coffee-table book "Dreads," which spotlights dreadlocked people from around the world.

The actor, who is in his early thirties and was raised in Tarrytown, N.Y., played Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet" and Octavius in "Julius Caesar" at the Shakespeare Theatre during the 1993-94 season. Then he muted his classical chops in favor of fluttering hearts as Noah Keefer on daytime TV's "All My Children."

"Making the choice to do daytime was really a necessity. They offered me a lot of money. This may launch me into a Hollywood career, which may allow me to do the roles I want to do," he said.

"Coriolanus" is his first big-stage production since that short season at the Shakespeare Theatre. Of Volscian general Aufidius and his rival, Roman general Coriolanus, Cobb quoted a line from the film "The Talented Mr. Ripley": "Why is it when men play, they always play at killing each other?" He sees the two generals as macho playmates whose competition and mutual admiration smolders into homoerotic lust. In fact, their climactic confrontation "becomes this very close, hand-to-hand, animal sort of paroxysm; hugely martial."

After Washington, Cobb will go to Vancouver, B.C., to play a lead role in a new syndicated sci-fi series, "Andromeda," starring Kevin Sorbo of television's "Hercules." Cobb's genetically engineered character is "a future superhuman being who looks like me," he said, expressing pleasure at the progress implicit in casting an African American as the perfect human.

Follow Spots

* The Kennedy Center has booked Liza Minnelli's one-woman show about her and her dad, director Vincent Minnelli, for a brief spring run. "Minnelli on Minnelli" will play April 12-16. Tickets will go on sale at the Kennedy Center Feb. 11. Orchestra seats are $110, box seats $135.

* The producing artistic director and the chairman of the board of the Stanislavsky Theater Studio have apologized to the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington for failing to honor some half-price tickets from the Alliance-operated Ticketplace. In a Jan. 14 letter to Alliance President Anthony J. Buzzelli, Andrei Malaev-Babel and James D. Peacock reiterated their view, expressed in last week's Backstage column, that Ticketplace mistakenly oversold half-price tickets for "The Idiot" during its final week. "In hindsight, we should have honored their . . . tickets at that time; regrettably, we did not, and we apologize to those few patrons," the letter said. The theater officials also criticized Ticketplace treasurer Jose Carrasquillo for his complaints about the Stanislavsky to Backstage, and claimed that their own calls to the Alliance to discuss the matter went unreturned.

* These are high-kicking times at Arena Stage, with "Guys and Dolls" averaging 95 percent of capacity and often selling out. Cast members have heard rumors of a possible road tour, but Arena Executive Director Stephen Richard said (via publicist Eve Lechner) that although the show's success has producers paying attention, "there's a long way from that to actually taking it on the road. We'll see over the next year." It closes Feb. 20.

* Last Wednesday, when Alexandra Foucard succumbed to the flu, "Guys and Dolls" chorus member and understudy Jill Slyter took over as Miss Adelaide. A Washington Post staffer who saw her performance reported that Slyter was excellent. And Washington actor Lawrence Redmond, who plays Benny Southstreet, took over for Maurice Hines as Nathan Detroit on Sunday while the star met a family obligation.

* The great mime Marcel Marceau, who's coming to Ford's Theatre Jan. 25-Feb. 13, will speak at the National Press Club at noon on Friday, Jan. 28. Call 202-662-7500. He'll also chat to a select audience on Sunday, Feb. 6, after the Ford's matinee. Part of the Smithsonian Associates program, that event includes a post-show reception, followed by Marceau's talk. Call 202-357-3030.

CAPTION: Keith Hamilton Cobb plays Aufidius in "Coriolanus," opening Sunday at the Shakespeare Theatre.