Wendy C. Goldberg, Arena Stage artistic associate, National Playwrights Conference artistic director and freelance director, hoped she could do it all but found herself "torn in many directions" -- too many, as it turns out. Friday was her last day at Arena, where she had directed productions of "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" and "Proof," and greatly expanded the company's public-readings showcase for new works.

Goldberg had just spent her first summer at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. Her passion for new work drew her to the O'Neill, a hothouse where dramatists hone and workshop new scripts. She remained at Arena to finish its latest series of play readings, which ended Friday with an adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye," and to help "shepherd through" the season-opener, "Passion Play, a Cycle." Now, she says, "it feels like the right time" to go. She will keep a home in Washington through the current theater season.

"I grew up here," Goldberg, 32, says of Arena. "To be part of an incredible institution from the very beginning of [Artistic Director Molly Smith's] tenure . . . to work as an artist here was a remarkable opportunity. I'm thrilled, but it's always hard to say goodbye."

Much More Than a Drag

The inspiration for playwright Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies" spans several centuries and genres, from Shakespeare to Hollywood.

The play, which had its premiere at Houston's Alley Theatre, will have its second production at Ford's Theatre Friday through Oct. 23. It chronicles the adventures of Leo and Jack, down-on-their-luck British actors touring America's Moose lodges. They pose in drag as the long-lost nieces of a dying dowager in York, Pa. (Ludwig's home town), in hopes of inheriting her fortune. Then Leo meets the mark's real niece, Meg, and love hits him like a falling anvil.

Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy for You") drew from Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," which he calls "one of the most brilliant comedies ever. Nobody has written a play like that, gender-bending for the stage, since 'Charley's Aunt,' " in 1892. Coincidentally, Ludwig adds, "I was rereading 'Huckleberry Finn' for the umpteenth time" and was struck anew by the con men, the Duke and the King.

Neither he nor director Mark Rucker ("House Arrest" at Arena Stage) sees the play, despite its guys-in-drag premise, as farce. "I consider it a romantic comedy," with elements of vaudeville and slapstick, Rucker says. It has "that great classical comedy sense that everything comes together in the end."

And as in farce or Shakespeare's comedies, there are many comings and goings and quick costume changes. "We definitely had to map it all out before we started," says Rucker. "Otherwise it would have been chaos."

Ian Kahn, who played Algernon in Arena Stage's recent "The Importance of Being Earnest," plays Leo. "He's a real dreamer. . . . I think the desperate choice he makes, I think of it as providence -- so he could meet Meg," Kahn says. Although the play has "a screwball feeling," he adds, "there's a real groundedness to all the characters."

Tony-winning music theater star Karen Ziemba plays Meg. "She's my dream leading lady," says Kahn, who saw her on Broadway in "Contact" five times (she played the abused wife) and cried at each performance.

Ziemba identifies with the yearning in Meg, a thirtyish woman who's about to marry a stuffy old cleric but longs to be an actress. "She wants so much to believe that the theater is a place of wonder and beauty and happiness," the actress says.

Having had her first taste of Shakespeare performance here in "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2002, Ziemba says she loves that excerpts of "Twelfth Night" and other plays by the Bard weave through Ludwig's play. "Shakespeare is very musical and rhythmic," says the dancer-singer-actress.

Ludwig says he wants people to come away with the idea that "this Shakespeare stuff isn't so scary."

Deja Vu at Studio Theatre

Actors Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story are sharing the stage again in an English play bristling with words, words, words. The Shakespeare Theatre Company star and the Northern Virginia-bred Juilliard grad play father and son[s] in "A Number" at Studio Theatre. It runs though Oct. 16.

They come to Caryl Churchill's short but dense and secret-laden play well prepared for a dramatic duet. In 2001, they played the poet A.E. Housman as his older and younger selves in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love" at Studio.

Familiarity breeds happiness. "We did three weeks' work in the first week" of rehearsals this time around, van Griethuysen says. Adds Story: "There was something kind of familial. . . . We had already done the groundwork."

In "A Number," a son discovers there are 20 cloned versions of himself walking around. Questions of who the "real" son is, who gets the paternal love, why the father did what he did, course through the play. "There is no clear answer, there is no clear villain," says Story, who appears as three copies of the son.

At first, van Griethuysen says, "I just thought the play was opaque. I just didn't get it." But after reading it through with Story at van Griethuysen's Connecticut home, "I got this stir -- the hurly-burly complexity of fathers and sons."

The play isn't so much about cloning as "about choices made in families," he says, and the "idea that people would like to have a second chance" raising their kids.

"It is such a weird play that the thought of doing it in front of people, that they might not get it, just terrified me," says Story. Now, after two weeks of performances, he reflects, "I think there's great logic to it and it makes absolute sense."

Both actors speak lovingly of Churchill's fragmented dialogue and call her a poet. "It's like a Bach fugue. It takes patience and finger work and touch," says van Griethuysen. "There's a science of where she puts periods and where she doesn't."

Story agrees. "There's great mystery in it. That's part of its power."

Follow Spot

There was a touch more drama than planned in the Shakespeare Theatre's "Othello" on Thursday night. Just after the climactic moment when Avery Brooks's Moor suffocates Colleen Delaney's Desdemona, water and sand began dripping onto the stage, calling an abrupt end to the play just minutes before Othello's suicide and Iago's arrest. The leak was repaired Friday.

Ian Kahn plays a con man in drag who falls for Karen Ziemba, playing the real niece of the woman he's trying to bilk, in Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies."