A Backstage item in the Oct. 26 Style section incorrectly said that "Molly's Pilgrim" at Adventure Theatre will close Nov. 5. The production will run Oct. 30 to Dec. 5. (Published 10/28/04)

Jules Feiffer thought all the ex-communists and lefty intellectuals he knew back in the day would be angry when they saw his play "A Bad Friend." The semi-autobiographical 1950s fable, critical of the House Un-American Activities Committee's witch hunts, also portrays, in terms both stark and comedic, the foolishness of holdouts who refused to recognize Joe Stalin as a bad guy.

Yet during its Lincoln Center run, former fellow travelers told Feiffer they approved. "It seems to have been, at least for these people, the first time they saw a version of themselves that they recognized, as opposed to a stereotype," he says. "I was bowled over."

The play, in a new production directed by Nick Olcott, will run at Theater J starting Saturday through Nov. 28.

Feiffer, a longtime syndicated cartoonist (he retired from that gig in 2000), playwright ("Little Murders"), screenwriter ("Carnal Knowledge") and children's book author-illustrator ("The Man in the Ceiling," "Bark, George"), mined his young adulthood for "A Bad Friend." The central character is a teenage girl, Rose, but she fronts for Feiffer's younger self. Her communist parents drive her nuts with their dogmatism. A federal agent bugs her to rat them out and a bookish, middle-aged artist to whom she tells her troubles has a secret of his own.

Recounts Feiffer, "When I got out of the Army in 1953, I fell into the company of a number of young Brooklyn artists. . . . All of us were left wing." They met a middle-aged painter "who attached himself to us. . . . He turned out to be Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, the most important Russian spy ever caught in this country.

"So years afterwards, I thought I have to . . . describe what it felt like . . . as a young man in your twenties, to feel like you know everything and it turns out you know nothing."

The Season Opener

A politically charged rendering of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" will open Olney Theatre Center's 2005 season in February.

"It was so hard to pick a 2005 season, not knowing what the damn election is going to be like," says Artistic Director Jim Petosa, who wanted to begin with a play that lent itself to political themes, though Olney's season begins long after the votes will have been tallied. One hopes.

He chose "Saint Joan" (Feb. 23-March 20) because it is about someone guided by a vision. "And where is that heroic and where is that foolhardy?" he asks. "Where is that delusional or where is that inspired?" Chris Hayes will direct.

"Omnium Gatherum" (March 30-April 24) by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros spoofs upscale Manhattanites trying hard to seem enlightened in a post-9/11 world.

Frequent Olney guest director John Going will revive the opera-in-the-boondocks-farce "Lend Me a Tenor" (May 11-June 5) by Washingtonian Ken Ludwig.

Petosa will direct "La Tragedie de Carmen" (June 22-July 17), a theatrical adaptation of Bizet's opera by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere and Marius Constant.

To inaugurate Olney's new 440-seat mainstage, still under construction, "with a play that has a broad power to speak to our entire audience," Petosa will revive "The Miracle Worker" (Aug. 10-Sept. 4).

Assuming the new space will need more work after that test run, Petosa will use the old stage for revivals of Paul Osborn's small-town tale of family ties and turmoil, "Morning's at Seven" (Oct. 5-30, 2005), and the early-'60s hit musical "Oliver!" (Nov. 16-Dec. 11, 2005) by Lionel Bart.

Arthur, Arthur

This seems to be the year for Arthurian legend on family stages -- first Imagination Stage's "Merlin and the Cave of Dreams," and now "The Light of Excalibur," which runs at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 7.

"I was an Arthur geek when I was a kid," says Norman Allen, who was commissioned to write the play for the center's Imagination Celebration series.

His version, offered for children age 9 and older, begins in a modern hospital room, where Agnes, a computer-savvy but emotionally bottled-up adolescent, keeps her sick mother company. The nurse morphs into the legendary wizard Merlin, who takes Agnes to ancient Britain, where she befriends the young Arthur and gains the emotional courage to face her family situation.

"Kids today, between living in a consumer culture and being so tied to technology, [are in] danger of losing things like instinct and intuition. . . . I wanted to show a contemporary adolescent who . . . gains them by going through this journey. . . . Arthur and Agnes learn from each other," says Allen.

A resident playwright at Signature Theatre, his mainstage work "Fallen From Proust" opens there in January. He has written several family plays for Signature's educational outreach program and worked with high school kids to produce them.

The Kennedy Center's Gregg Henry, who directed, says framing the Arthurian tale with a modern one in which the teen heroine is "so frightened of what her mother is going through" makes "The Light of Excalibur" a "challenging concept for theater for a family audience."

Follow Spots

* Jules Feiffer and fellow cartoonists Will Eisner and Tom Toles of The Washington Post will chat about art and politics after the Sunday matinee of "A Bad Friend" at Theater J. The panel discussion is free. Call 202-777-3229.

* Arena Stage's fifth season of readings of commissioned works starts Friday with Robert ("The Kentucky Cycle") Schenkkan's "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates." Barry Levey's "Critical Darling" will be read Saturday. Both are at 8 p.m. in the Old Vat Room. Admission is $5. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.

* Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park will present "Molly's Pilgrim" Oct. 30-Nov. 5, a locally grown musical with script and lyrics by Sandra Eskin and music by Wayne Chadwick, a teacher at Walt Whitman High School. Based on a children's book by Barbara Cohen, it's about a Russian immigrant girl in the early 1900s who tries to fit in at school while working on a Thanksgiving project. Call 301-320-5331 or e-mail adventuretheatre@starpower.net.

"A Bad Friend," says playwright Jules Feiffer, explores the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s, and his own leftist sympathies, in a new light. The play opens Saturday at Theatre J.Jim Petosa has announced Olney Theatre Center's 2005 lineup. Playwright Norman Allen, below, resorts to wizardry with his "Light of Excalibur" at the Kennedy Center.