WHEN COLLEGE student Taylor Behl mysteriously vanished after leaving her dorm room at Virginia Commonwealth University a few weeks ago, panic ensued, predictably, among students at the Richmond school. Equally predictable was what came next, a media blitz featuring the victim's mother, who passionately, and quite understandably, appeared on multiple programs on multiple TV networks, all in hopes of getting the word out about her missing daughter.

Playwright Gina Gionfriddo has been following the case with interest.

"My mother sends me clippings," says the young writer of Woolly Mammoth's "After Ashley," which takes as its subject the media's macabre fascination with crime victims, particularly imperiled white women, as well as the eerie brand of celebrity often afforded their family members. "It's definitely interesting to see how [Behl's] mother is handling this. . . . There's become a sort of protocol for how to do this effectively."

Gionfriddo's own family still lives in the American University Park house where she grew up, and though the alumnus of Georgetown Day School has long since decamped to New York, the Washington area remains an inspiration. Evidence: Act one of her play is set, in part, in Bethesda, home of Ashley Hammond (Marni Penning), whose violent murder prompts a very public grieving by her family, and then a kind of victim porn, as her husband and son become the targets of an "America's Most Wanted"-type program and its sleazy host (Paul Morella).

No one is more offended by the harsh media treatment than Ashley's teenage son, Justin (Mark Sullivan, in a "fine central performance," wrote The Post's Peter Marks). The play follows Justin's myriad attempts to fend off would-be exploiters of his mother's story -- everyone from publishers with lucrative book-deal contracts to charities hoping to use Ashley's name to raise dough.

For Gionfriddo, this omnipresent "protocol" can be traced, like most things these days, to Sept. 11.

"Initially, I felt there was an appropriate reverence and restraint in the media coverage of that day," she says. "And I was hopeful that that would be maintained." It wasn't, of course. "When you overuse a word like 'hero,' you kind of suck the meaning out of it. I started to think about that phenomenon -- that by overuse and overexposure we can really rob language and rob events of their appropriate power."

A larger issue here, and the one that drives Gionfriddo's teenage protagonist to distraction, is the public's prurient interest in gory family tragedies, from JonBenet to Laci to Chandra. According to Gionfriddo, "the particular thing that Justin gets stuck on is the sexing up and the sexualizing of violence," a sin of which Hollywood and television dramas -- not just news channels -- are guilty.

Which brings up a question. Should we be troubled that the writer of "After Ashley" divides her time between playwriting and penning scripts for the NBC series "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"? At least one member of the franchise is even singled out by the play for ridicule.

That would be "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which typically defines "special victims" as those who have suffered rape, pedophilia, murder or some combination of the three. "That's not the show I work for," Gionfriddo points out. " 'Criminal Intent' is much more of an old-fashioned mystery than some of these other shows."

But it's still series television, a universe far removed from the theater's fascination with experimentation and flexible run times. "The structure is really non-negotiable. You have those three commercial breaks." Stories have to be constructed with such interruptions kept firmly in mind, "in such a way that people come back after the commercial. . . . There are little peaks at very prescribed moments."

The form can be constricting, but "Law & Order" has meant good, steady work for Gionfriddo since January. And as she learns to navigate those peaks and valleys, she finds the job increasingly enjoyable, even if only one script of hers has aired so far (another is scheduled for October). You get the sense that her heart will always belong to the theater ("it's sort of the difference between reading an Agatha Christie novel and reading Faulkner"), but her TV perch has its charms. Among them: an insider's perspective into the increasingly codependent relationship between media and public.

"We're creating a different kind of victim," Gionfriddo says, again thinking of Behl. "And there are going to be really positive things about that, and probably negative things, too." In other words, it's all very puzzling -- a complicated, no-easy-answers story that only the theater can do justice to.

Bruce Nelson and Mark Sullivan portray father and son coping with devastating loss in "After Ashley." Deanna McGovern also stars.