Do we want answers or do we want questions?

That seems a bald way to put it. But it's certainly one way of differentiating two plays in town -- Charles Marowitz's devious "Sherlock's Last Case" at the Eisenhower Theater and John Patrick Shanley's "Savage in Limbo," which the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is performing with considerable gusto at the Washington Project for the Arts.

Of course, the plays are as dissimilar as a cup of tea and a shot of scotch and no one risks confusing them. Indeed, other than the fact that they have both cropped up on local stages at the same time, they belong to two different theatrical worlds.

And yet, it seems to me, there is something to be gleaned from their juxtaposition. It has to do with answers or the glaring absence of them. More and more in our playhouses, it's the absence we're aware of. Answers aren't just suspect these days. They're largely inconceivable.

In "Sherlock's Last Case," Marowitz has concocted a coda to the illustrious career of the world's most celebrated detective, Sherlock Holmes. "Savage in Limbo" brings together a group of 32-year-old misfits in a Bronx bar, where they attempt to pull themselves out of the rut that passes for living. The former is written with a nod to Victorian proprieties and the flourishes and coup de the'a~tre beloved of turn-of-the century entertainments. The latter is peppered with street vernacular and ruptured grammar and none of the characters is remotely concerned with civilities. They're too busy trying to get unstuck.

As Denise Savage (Gra'inne Cassidy) notes with the raucous impatience of one who wants to get on with the race if only she knew where to find the starting gate: "I do believe there is another kinda living that doesn't have deadness in it." Both plays, however, are about figuring things out and in that respect, I think we can draw an instructive line.

The riddle is the whole point of "Sherlock's Last Case." We are presented with a mystifying set of circumstances that begins when Holmes (in the elegant person of Frank Langella) receives into his parlor a woman of questionable purpose. Oh, her purpose appears clear enough on the surface. She claims to be the daughter of Prof. Moriarty, once Holmes' archenemy, although that fiend is now deceased.

Holmes stirred up a lot of bad blood in the Moriarty family over the years. And the young woman would like to lay animosities to rest. If, she pleads, Holmes could just meet her brother (Aha! She has a brother), talk with him and defuse his anger, then maybe they could all get on with their lives.

To believe her is to believe in the tooth fairy. We know that in advance, although it will take the better part of two hours -- and a couple of visits to an abandoned abattoir -- to figure out what is really going on here. If the answer occurs to Holmes first and if it strikes him as "elementary," well, that's one of the conventions, agreed upon by playwright and audience. We are there to be hoodwinked, discombobulated, led down a garden path or two before discovering the treachery that is so determined to conceal itself.

What "Sherlock's Last Case" promises is a last-minute revelation, in light of which everything worrisome and deceptive will fall nicely into place. It purports to deal in evil -- one look at the infernal dentist's chair in the abattoir will tell you that -- but it's evil of particularly manageable proportions. It can be explained, once the facts are in. Somewhere midst all the red herrings there is a key to the confusion that has been unleashed -- a motive!

"Savage in Limbo" has no mystery to spring on us whatsoever, or rather it has the biggest mystery of all -- life, itself. Shanley's characters can't make head nor tails of it, but they have an acute awareness that existence is not as it should be. "I'm like one a those guys inna factory and they bring in all new machines. That's what I feel like. Like I gotta retrain or I'm gonna lose my place," declares Tony Aronica, a self-styled bantam in leather pants who inadvertently provides the spark that ignites the drama in Shanley's bar.

No matter that his distress has been triggered by a sexual encounter with a patently unattractive woman who inflamed him first by lecturing him about the Soviet Union -- " 'bout their economy ... How they feel about China bein right there. Everything." Every bit as absurd is the conclusion he has drawn from the experience: From now on, he has told himself, he will sleep with only "ugly women," a decree that sends his longtime girlfriend into a state of near panic and alerts Savage to the possibility that maybe she could take over the turf.

Change is what he's after, what they're all after. In the course of a rambunctious evening, they will explore their limited options as best they can -- which is to say with a clumsy, antic desperation. Their willingness, however, to entertain the great philosophical issues gives the play a distinctive comic tone and considerable vivacity.

They are way out of their intellectual depth and their vocabulary leaves them forever in the lurch. Just listen to Savage, who between expletives (and drinks) wrestles with the notion of suicide. "We're on the cliff," she explains with aggressiveness bordering on out right anger. "We were born here. Well, do you wanna die on the cliff? Do you wanna die in bed? ... They told us if you jump off the cliff, you die, {but} we don't know that. You don't know nothin you ain't done, an nobody can tell you nothin."

The speech may not have the soaring nobility of "To be or not to be," but these are the same existential doubts that plagued the famous Dane. Savage may be all hopped up and raring for action, but that's just youthful momentum. Underneath, she's battling exhaustion. "It's like everybody knows everything and everybody's argued everything and everything got hashed out and settled the day before I was born," she says. "It's not fair. They know about gravity. It's a dead issue. Look at me. My feet are stuck to the. . .floor. Fantastic. But no, that's gravity. Forget it. It's been done, it's been said, it's been thought."

There is no response to life's conundrums, Shanley suggests, other than the knowing resignation of the bartender, who regards the goings-on with benign detachment as long as everyone pays for his drink. "Savage in Limbo" is purposefully open-ended. Out of chaos is born chaos. Nothing is laid to rest. The play simply chronicles an ongoing quest. Indeed, the raging arguments in "Savage in Limbo" could just as easily start up all over again the following night and probably will.

If contemporary drama has a common thread, it is, I think, precisely the frustrating and fumbling search for certainties in a world that is unpredictable, threatening and, above all, baffling. Sherlock Holmes may get himself into countless predicaments. But he also gets out of them. For the most part, 20th-century man doesn't. He wonders and waits, like Didi and Gogo, for the Godot who'll unlock the puzzle.

I don't pretend that "Savage in Limbo" is one of the great plays, but it is lively with intuitions, struggling to take shape, discontents trying to define themselves and free-floating symptoms looking for a diagnosis. That makes it, in the end, as troublesome as "Sherlock's Last Case" is fundamentally reassuring.

For all your moments of befuddlement, you get to exorcise the evil in "Sherlock's Last Case." "Savage in Limbo" has no such panacea for a malaise that is essentially unknowable to begin with. Whatever it is -- a feeling of sameness, a closing-in or the nagging sensation that our possibilities have already been explored and found wanting -- it's there, an inextricable component of the universe.

Savage is certainly trying to put her finger on it. But the best she can do is ask a question. "What," she demands to know, "was my crime that I got life?"

Not even Holmes could tell her, and detection is supposed to be his specialty.