"I like characters that are sort of outsiders," says playwright Jon Klein.

Like a vegetarian vampire bunny.

Asked to describe his stage adaptation of "Bunnicula," about a rabbit who purportedly drains the juice from vegetables till they turn white, he'll cite "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." His play "very much approaches" that 1948 horror-comedy in tone, Klein says.

At Imagination Stage, where the play with music runs through Nov. 7, Bunnicula's eyes glow red and his lips pull back to reveal fangs. There is, says director Janet Stanford, "a hint of mystery still at the end as to whether [the bunny] is harmless."

Klein adapted Deborah and James Howe's 1979 kid-lit hit about seven years ago as a commission for Seattle Children's Theatre. He saw Bunnicula as a puppet rather than a guy in a hare suit. "That is what made the show work all these years," Klein says, citing some 30 productions and several in the works, including a revival by audience request in Seattle.

"The rabbit is the draw. One rehearsal I attended, I warned all the actors, if the rabbit does something, nobody is going to look at you," he says.

Klein, 50, started out as an apprentice at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. He has lived around the country to be near theaters that commission his work, often teaching playwriting and screenwriting along the way. This year he's living in Washington to run Catholic University's playwriting program.

Klein's name was on many Washington area theater programs in the 1990s for plays geared to adult audiences: "Dimly Perceived Threats to the System," at Arena Stage; "T Bone N Weasel" at Round House; "Betty the Yeti" and "The Einstein Project"(written with Paul D'Andrea) at Theater of the First Amendment. "It's very difficult to pin down my style -- children's plays, dramas, historical epics," the writer says.

His newest stage work, "Suggestibility," will premiere at L.A.'s Victory Theatre in the winter. Clearly not a kiddie piece, Klein says it is "about sex, deceit, lies and manipulation."

At Home With an Issue

Lisa Loomer makes no apologies for writing "issue plays," but she says she tries to enlighten rather than preach.

Arena Stage audiences saw her explore ideas about female beauty and maternity in "The Waiting Room" and "Expecting Isabel" in the mid-1990s. "Living Out," at Round House through Oct. 10, is Loomer's meditation on the chasms of race and class among upper-middle-class white women and their Latina nannies.

"I really try to tell it in the most personal way," she explains. "I set it in the home, because I thought that would be the most emotional and personal place to look at a social issue." She suggests in her script that the sets be designed (as they are at Round House) so the prosperous Americans and struggling immigrants seem to inhabit the same living spaces -- "the idea being that we are sharing space. Whether we know it or not, we're sharing."

The Los Angeles-based writer says she's working on a screenplay for Halle Berry, "Nappily Ever After." And though it's a Hollywood movie, it's about an issue Loomer has dealt with before, "what women go through to meet society's standards of beauty."

Actresses Direct

Jane Beard and Paula Gruskiewicz act up a storm. They're known for it. Beard has been a star of longstanding at Round House Theatre, most recently appearing in "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train." Gruskiewicz played Virginia Woolf at Rep Stage last winter in "Vita & Virginia."

But now the actresses are directing. Beard is staging the Rob Ackerman comedy about a commercial shoot, "Tabletop," for Round House's Silver Spring space, where previews start tomorrow. Gruskiewicz is directing Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" at Bay Theatre Company in Annapolis, where it opens Oct. 8.

"I've been wanting to direct for a couple of years," says Gruskiewicz. As an actress, she says, "my attention was wandering to scenes and moments that I wasn't in . . . I got the bug."

Explaining her vision to designers and even fellow actors hasn't been easy, despite advice from actor-director Michael Russotto, a friend. "I work very intuitively," says Gruskiewicz. "My big challenge is to find a way to put those instincts into words and communicate them to my actors and actresses in a way that's clear and direct and helpful and inspiring."

Beard directed "Underneath the Lintel" at Round House last season, but that was a solo piece starring Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon. Now she's dealing with six actors in a fast-paced story. After agreeing to do it, she remembers, "I read the play again and I thought, oh my god." But she had faith in her cast, "so my job was to create an atmosphere in the room that everybody could do their best work," Beard says.

It is also her job to tell the story the playwright wants told. "Most actors, I think, just know what the melody of their character is. They don't necessarily know what the melody of the play is . . . I've always found that my way into the play is what's the story and how does my character fit into the story."

"I wasn't sure I would like working on a play and not getting to perform it," says Beard. "But I think I'm going to be just fine with that."

Follow Spots

* Stanislavsky Theater Studio, in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, will present "Princes & Principles" Oct. 7-10 at its 1742 Church St. NW space. Based on the writings of Renaissance man Niccolo Machiavelli ("The Prince") and 18th-century man Cesare Beccaria ("On Crimes and Punishments"), the interdisciplinary piece was created by writer-director-choreographer Marco Pelle. It will be in English. Call 1-800-494-8497 or visit www.sts-online.org.

* Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer has a second-in-command. Rick Desrochers will fill the new position of associate artistic director. He was literary director at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, held a similar position at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Featival and was artistic director of Boston's New Theater Inc. He will direct one Signature main stage show each season and the Signature in the Park concert, handle new play development and dramaturgy.

Jon Klein is known for adult-themed plays, but his adaptation of a children's book is at Imagination Stage.Lisa Loomer, left, addresses race and class issues in "Living Out" at Round House. Jane Beard directs "Tabletop" at Round House's Silver Spring space.