The National Theater of the Deaf, that most spirited and innovative of troupes, is touring a lazy production this year, and we and they are the poorer for it.

Given a single Washington area performance recently at Frederick's Weinberg Centre, "The Three Musketeers" is a hotchpotch of skits instead of a play. Leaping from its namesake to pieces from "Cyrano," "Hamlet" or "Gone With the Wind," it sacrifices full charactrizations and plot development to camp and burlesque.

The company is so good that they can get away with almost anything. But for those of us who have seen their work in Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "Candide," or the far-out and puzzling Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thompson opera "The Four Saints" (their production last season), "The Three Musketeers" is disappointing.

The play - originally intended to be a production of Peter Raby's dramatization of the Dumas classic until they failed to obtain the rights to it - opens as a company rehearsal. The actors, including National Theater of the Deaf veterans Patrick Graybill, Freda Norman nand Joseph Sarpy, vie for the parts. Wit and flair abound.

Full of stops and starts, it is a staccato production. By first act's end, little plot progress has been made. Nevertheless, there are some pleasures. Interspersed with fragments of the Dumas novel are showcase monologues, among them Sarpy's superb rendition in sign of Cyrano's "nose" speech, and Freda Norman's elegant Cleopatra about to apply the asp. Words are recited by hearing actors. The sign is intricate and elegant. This speaking-singing techinque is sheer magic when it works.

Even at its weakest, the National Theater of the Deaf is fascinating. At its best, it is an artistic revelation. Those who know the theater's work want to see them stretch. This production of "The Three Musketeers" misrepresents their creative abilities.