THERE'S SOMETHING about a man in a well-fitting dress and pumps that gets an audience's attention. That's what JD Cullum has been finding out as he acclimates himself to the mystique of his new feminine role and wardrobe. Cullum, a Los Angeles actor with a long list of television, movie and theater credits, is in town to play Jack-slash-Stephanie in the Ford's Theatre regional premiere of "Leading Ladies." And he's discovered very quickly that it takes a tough man to learn to walk gracefully in three-inch heels.

"It hurts," Cullum whined good-naturedly last week during a break in rehearsals. "The higher the pump the more it hurts. I've gotten used to little two-inch heels, but the big heels, they thrust my foot downward and squish my toes. I can barely manage 15 minutes in those." What price beauty, indeed.

"I do have a new appreciation for women," he said.

"Leading Ladies," playwright Ken Ludwig's sweetly mischievous farce, concerns two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors who disguise themselves as long-lost nieces to bilk a wealthy Pennsylvania woman (Charlotte Rae) out of her fortune. The Tony Award-winning playwright's previous works include "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Crazy for You." Before his scripts became hugely popular, Ludwig practiced law for Washington's Steptoe and Johnson, where he remains "of counsel."

Both Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and director Billy Wilder's classic film "Some Like It Hot" were points of departure for this newest Ludwig comedy, reported costume designer Judith Dolan, who was in New York early last week to oversee finishing touches on the form-fitting dresses, blouses and girdles Cullum and his co-star and partner-in-stockings, Ian Kahn, who plays Leo, will don and doff throughout the evening. They're joined in this comic mayhem by John Astin as Doc, the town physician and chief Moose of the local Moose Lodge, where the pair bring their Shakespearean show. Astin is most recognizable from his role as the patriarch on the oddball television series "The Addams Family."

Dolan -- a San Diegan who has a Tony to her credit for Broadway's "Candide" -- took a refined approach to dressing her men in ladies' clothing. "It isn't outrageous drag. . . . It's more like cross-dressing, and anybody who has seen a cross-dresser on the street has that moment of doubt: Is that a large woman, is that a masculine woman? What is going on here?" Dolan explained that she wants that moment of uncertainty upon seeing men dressed as women. "Ambiguity . . . because there are some very human emotions that erupt in this show. It's a comedy of manners, and I really want to honor those people [characters] in York, Pennsylvania, who believe these two men are women," she said.

Cross-dressing in the theater has a long and illustrious tradition, dating to the ancient Greeks, who believed women on stage were unseemly, and to Shakespeare, who relied on mistaken identities and cross-dressing as plot devices. While cross-dressing can range from the broadly comic fish-out-of-water approach of Milton Berle to the highly elaborate drag spectacle of the Cagelles from "La Cage aux Folles," Dolan has chosen to dress her men as elegantly and realistically as possible. "I guess the closest thing to what I'm striving for is 'Some Like It Hot,' " she says. "It's played for gender comedy, not slapstick. There's the ambiguity of sexuality and the ambiguity of when people fall in love."

That has translated into fashionable women's clothing -- think 1950s Vogue or Good Housekeeping -- that must not only be convincing, Dolan explains, but easy to get on and off. Cullum has lightning-fast changes that will require a team of four to five backstage dressers.

Even so, Cullum said, "the costumes are really beautiful. It struck me when I was at the fitting, this is really serious: I'm really playing a woman here. We're pulling out all the stops. It's not just throwing on the wig and doing a funny walk." Cullum is working on his gait, and the subtle sway of his -- or is that her? -- hips as well as other feminine gestures -- like how to hold his arms delicately or offhandedly fix an out-of-place wisp of hair.

And Cullum, who was still working on mastering high heels -- he hadn't even tried the girdle on yet -- bragged: "It's not to say that I make a poor man, but I do have to say I think I make a pretty good woman."

Tony-winning designer Judith Dolan's sketch of a costume for Jack/Stephanie (Cullum).In character but out of costume: JD Cullum (who plays a man playing a woman) and Lacey Kohl rehearse a scene from "Leading Ladies" at Ford's Theatre.