David Fendig has to refrain from scratching too early or he'll spoil the progression of his character's suffering -- both physical and spiritual -- in "Grace." As the evangelical businessman Steve, he begins to itch as his absolute faith in God, his wife and a multimillion-dollar business deal begin to crack. Soon Steve's discomfort takes on the intensity of a biblical plague.

The new play by Craig Wright ("The Pavilion," "Recent Tragic Events," "Melissa Arctic"), receiving its world premiere production by Woolly Mammoth, is running at the Warehouse Theater through Dec. 19.

"I read this script and I was just magnetically attracted to it for some reason. Maybe it was the itching," jokes the actor. ". . . It was really a script that I had been more excited about than anything I had read in a long time."

The 37-year-old Washington-bred Fendig was trained in classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In the early 1990s, he broke in here at smaller theaters such as Washington Shakespeare Company and Scena Theatre, then quietly spent a decade growing into a versatile, verbally adept "actor's actor." He's now an affiliated artist at Arena Stage, where he has appeared in such shows as "Shakespeare in Hollywood," "A Man's a Man" and "All My Sons." His classical training has come in handy for Benedick in the Folger's "Much Ado About Nothing." His last show was "Living Out" at Round House, playing a nice, normal husband. In "Grace" he commits murder.

"David's a tremendously willing actor, as the whole cast is," says "Grace" director Michael John Garces, who also staged Woolly's world premiere of Wright's "Recent Tragic Events."

"I've really pushed David hard . . . sort of mercilessly," Garces concedes. Fendig's character, he notes, "carries the play."

"Every scene he's in, he motors those scenes," he says.

Garces and Wright made drastic changes to the script during rehearsal. The playwright composed monologues and back stories that the actors learned, then lost as further changes followed. "These actors really had to trust us a lot because the play has changed so much," says Garces. "I told the actors, 'Prepare to lose the scenes you love.' "

"I thought it was absolutely brilliant," Fendig says of the writer's and director's ruthless red-pencil approach. The play shrank from about 90 pages to 70, and runs under two hours with no intermission. Wright "basically chopped the front and the end off the scenes," the actor explains, but "you still had the guts of the conflict.

"The beginning and the end were completely different from one day to another," he says of the process. "It was amazing. We didn't even rehearse the last scene because we didn't know what it was going to be until the last week" of rehearsals.

"That was scary for me, because I just knew that whatever it was was going to be a torrential, mad scene. I just wanted to be able to get there."

The play opens and closes with the same scene -- Steve shooting his wife and neighbor, who have fallen in love. Garces says Wright's play illustrates how "one person's grace note, one moment of moving forward, is another person's note of falling backwards, of failing, of being devastated by something."

Not the Same Old 'Carol'

Matt August knows that staging a completely new production of "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre is a high-profile gig. Running Nov. 23-Jan. 2, it will be the second entry in Paul R. Tetreault's inaugural season as producing director and part of his plan to polish Ford's artistic image.

That means new script, sets, costumes, lighting and sound design.

The prospect is "thrilling, but it's also terrifying," says August. He's using a 1990 adaptation by Michael Wilson, "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas," which Tetreault premiered and produced while managing director at the Alley Theatre in Houston. And, of course, there's the tale itself. "The Dickens story is glorious. It has everything in it," says August.

At a recent rehearsal, the 34-year-old New York-based director was blocking a scene -- a holiday party at the home of Scrooge's nephew Fred (Clinton Brandhagen). Scrooge (Martin Rayner), invisible alongside the Ghost of Christmas Present (Jeorge Watson), sees himself made fun of.

Part of what fuels August's vision is the historical fact that before and after the Civil War Charles Dickens did readings in Washington, including at the White House -- though not at Ford's, according to his research. So theatergoers may glimpse the legendary author morphing into that "covetous old sinner" Scrooge right before their eyes.

"I looked at this theater and I thought, how cool. . . . Dickens, with this tornado of an imagination, comes to this theater that is riddled with ghosts of its own," says August. In Rayner as Dickens/Scrooge, August says he has "a powerhouse of an actor." The two worked together in New York when August was associate director to Jack O'Brien staging Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love."

The director is determined to leaven the fantastical in "A Christmas Carol" with dollops of Dickens's social criticism. "I keep telling the cast, 'This is not the Christmas pageant. This is a political, social story,' " says August. "If there's one thing Scrooge is told in this play, it is no man is an island. . . . You can't sit there like a dragon on top of your wealth."

Alternative 'Frequency'

The Paul Allman play "Kenneth -- What Is the Frequency?" which opened last month and closes Sunday at New York's 78th Street Theatre Lab, is not the version that ran in Washington in 2003, though both were inspired by Allman's 2001 Harper's magazine article. In that piece, Allman proposed a compelling, if bizarre, link between the late author Donald Barthelme and the notorious 1986 sidewalk assault on CBS newsman Dan Rather by two men yelling, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"

The Washington production, a surreal comedy that included a puppet show, was co-written by Cherry Red Productions' Ian Allen and Monique LaForce. They used Allman's article (with his permission) as both a source and a jumping-off point, always knowing, according to Allen, that Allman might one day do his own theatrical adaptation.

Follow Spots

* Studio Theatre will celebrate the opening of its newly expanded theater complex at 14th and P streets Saturday with an open house starting at 10 a.m. Guided tours and a pay-what-you-can show of "Flow," by hip-hop artist Will Power, at 2:30 p.m. will be featured. Visit www.studiotheatre.org.

* The Stanislavsky Theater Studio will reprise "Babel: How It Was Done in Odessa" Friday through Dec. 19. Artistic Director Andrei Malaev-Babel will again perform the piece, as he did in Baltimore earlier this month. Visit www.sts-online.org.

* On Nov. 2, Backstage mistakenly credited Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company with premiering David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." The play in fact originated at that city's Goodman Theatre. And Arena Stage alumnus Howard Witt replaced former Arena colleague Robert Prosky for five months during the play's Broadway run, not 11, as reported in the column.

David Fendig, with Jennifer Mendenhall in Woolly Mammoth's "Grace." "I read this script and I was just magnetically attracted to it," Fendig says.Matt August is directing a new "Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre.