IT'S LATE. IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT.

And the crowd is happy.

They've jived on some classical washboard-playing. They've heard an old gentleman spout his past in pentameter. And now it's time to watch two guys climb a ladder to ballet music.

New York, right?

Wrong. D.C. Fourteenth and T streets. Amateur night at Java Rama, an improvisational coffeehouse, operated by tonight's emcee, B. ("It's a family thing, these initials") Stanley.

"New York's too outrageous," says Stanley -- positively d'Artagnan in goatee, baggy pants and blacksmith's shirt. "Rent's a lot cheaper here, more human scale. Here, you don't have to have your mind split in so many ways . . ."

What Washington doesn't need, he's saying, is "another Arena Stage," nor, for that matter, "any more Ionesco." "We have plays coming here that have had movies made out of them. I don't want to see that."

So four years ago, after doing his share of not-so-prime-time theater in Washington, Stanley opened up the Jarry Theater (also on 14th Street) and formed the three-member abstract troupe Theatre du Jour. The audience was encouraging. "They'd say to us, 'Hey, this is great political satire,' when it had nothing to do with it. It didn't bother us. We tried to give them a different look at things."

Last year, right before the Jarry Theater was sold, Stanley began renting the space next door, blocking the opening of a Chinese carryout ("Well, first off," he says, "I don't like Chinese food"). With his hammer and the cash he earns doing carpentry work for people restoring homes, he has created what he hopes to be "a meeting place of ideas."

"Theater is quite on the move," he says. "It's shifting from something that old ladies in blue hair would go to on a Saturday afternoon to a true state of exchange of cultures."

But in a town never known for its introspective theater or theatergoers, he's losing his shirt -- $600 a month, he says.

So every fourth Saturday, Stanley becomes master of ceremonies, his best-known role to date, and invites the public, at $3 a head, to perform for one another. Those who dare sing original ballads, play guitar, tell jokes and read endless rounds of poetry. Benches line the room, like a Quaker meetinghouse, and everyone squeezes in together, drinking beer brought in paper bags. To Stanley's amazement, these nights -- not his plays -- have become Java Rama's biggest moneymakers, grossing $300 apiece. (The next public performing night

is July 18.)

"It started out much smaller. At the beginning, if I got 15 people, it was big." Now he packs in about 100 people. But the nights, he says, are losing their edge.

"It's a different kind of crowd, more of a straight crowd. Before, you needed to be barefoot and wear loose clothes. You needed to be unhindered because there was much more movement and more abstract ideas -- maybe poetry with the congas or movements with guttural sounds -- more mid-'60s experimental theater. Now I can do it in a suit and cowboy boots. Now you've got five guys playing Zeppelin on their guitars."

Despite the fact that Stanley isn't making any money or attracting the acclaim he might in New York, he's happy with the scene at Java Rama. "There are no big breaks in theater," he says. "In D.C. we might not get a lot of notoriety, but at least we get to do our plays."