Paula Vogel's potent drama Hot 'N' Throbbing is about a house divided, a marriage infected, a family exploded by a combustible combination of sex, violence, and, perhaps most flammable of all, an irrepressible yearning for intimacy. Everything in the world of this play--its inhabitants, emotions, dialogue, setting--bespeaks normalcy warped into something singularly unsettled and unsettling. At any moment, you sense, it could all come tumbling down.

For the new, significantly reworked version of Vogel's 1993 play at Washington, DC's Arena Stage, director Molly Smith called in Berlin-based artist Bill C. Ray to create the physical environment for the family at home, "the place of the greatest safety and the greatest violence," as Smith terms it. In this house, a suburban mother, daughter, son, and estranged father rub up against illusory leather-clad porn stars, darkest reality and deepest fantasy freely intermingle, and passionate panting is as likely to be piped in as passages from Moby Dick. "This is a very complex play," says Ray. "There are many different layers."

The set designer approached the play from a psychological rather than architectural perspective, he says, and went from there. "Things like time of day, geographical location, and period weren't necessarily as important as what was going on at the core of the piece, what's going on internally, and how can we show that externally," he says.

But an architectural metaphor quickly emerged from the play's psychological core: deconstruction. "It's disturbed reality," explains Ray. "Buildings constructed this way stand, but look like they're falling apart. They look like they've been deconstructed as opposed to constructed. You end up with a visual contradiction."

On Arena's thrust stage, the audience sees a family home in silhouette--rust-colored shag carpeting, a maroon leather La-Z-Boy recliner, a standard-issue home office, a foldout couch in subdued plaid, a basket of magazines, a picture window, French doors, and no less than five TV sets. A sparse patch of Astroturf and a bit of white picket fence evoke the outside world.

But another layer soon grows visible beneath the sharply raked surface. The roof looks as if it has been blown off in a sudden blast. "It's not protecting anyone from anything," says Ray. "It sort of hangs overhead like a big red axe or a knife. It looks threatening, like it's about to fall." Wall beams are exposed. The patch of picket fence is but a disconnected shard. A jagged chunk of foundation supports nothing.

The house, says the designer, is "an unprotected island, accessible from all sides." Actors make entrances and exits fully visible to the audience and one another. They walk through walls. It's all about exposure, vulnerability, and danger.

"We're led to believe that everyone stands firm and is solid and has a good foundation," says the designer, "but this one doesn't. This group of people and their relationships are really broken apart. You could say what I'm showing onstage is the broken home, but I think it's more than that. It has to do with the societal structures thatare also a contradiction in the way they're functioning in terms of family structure, values, and roles. So we have the illusion of what these things are supposed to be, and at the same time, they're falling apart."

A change of light (designed by Allen Lee Hughes), a little music (sound design was by Timothy M. Thompson), and the French doors become a peep show window, the standing lamp a pole around which an exotic dancer can fling a fishnet stocking-clad leg (costumes are by Marilyn Salvatore)--the enactment of the characters' sexual fantasies. "Don't believe anything that happens in the red light," cautions the program. But before long, it's not clear just what to believe.

"There are switches when you're in real time and then--bang--you're not. The real time turns to fantasy time," Ray says. But while Vogel had specified that a blue light be used to indicate fantasy, the set designer felt that a strong red was more suitable for sexual sizzle. "I kept nudging the blues into the fuchsias," he confesses. "After all, the play is called Hot 'N' Throbbing."

Ray says he and lighting designer Hughes played off each other's palettes to create mood and realm; "You always depend on the lights to save your butt," he quips. Ray admits to taking a bit of license with Vogel's stage directions, too. "I'm not very good at following instructions; I wasn't very obedient, but I did try to be true to the feeling behind them."

For instance, while the playwright specified that glass booths be built into the set for certain fantasy scenes, Ray instead had windows flown in, gelled hot pink and purple. It was an image he took directly from a visit to Holland's red-light district, where he went looking for the seamy underside of a place where sex is sold. "Even if people in the audience haven't been there and don't recognize it as that place," he says, "I think they'll pick up on the lurid atmosphere."

After all, the play is called Hot 'N' Throbbing. Hot 'N' Throbbing runs through October 17 at Arena Stage.

Finian's Rainbow may be the most famous Broadway show that you've never seen. The E. Y. Harburg-Fred Saidy-Burton Lane musical, produced in 1947, was one of the key hits of that decade, racking up a run of 725 performances. It also has one of the great scores of the period, including the ballads "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" and "That Old Devil Moon," among others. But in recent years productions have been scarce, largely because the show's libretto, a nutty, distinctively 1940s mixture of whimsical fantasy, sharp political satire, and typical Broadway romance, makes producers nervous.

They certainly don't write them like this anymore: the plot centers on Finian McLongeran, an Irishman who steals a pot of gold and hightails it to the southern state of Missitucky. Finian wants to plant the pot under Fort Knox, because he thinks they grow gold there. Finian's daughter, Sharon, falls in love with Woody, a union leader, who is trying to organize the sharecroppers who work for the bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins. Meanwhile, Og, a leprechaun, appears in pursuit of his gold. Things get really wild when Og exerts his magic powers and turns Senator Rawkins into a black man (that sound you hear is of timid investors running in the opposite direction).

However, things are looking up for Finian's Rainbow these days, perhaps because the score is too delectable to let alone. The film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1968, has become a fixture on the cable channel AMC. A revival at Goodspeed Opera House in 1997 was successfully received. Now comes a new production, headed for Broadway after an initial stop at the Coconut Grove Theatre in Miami, with a freshened-up book by Peter Stone that aims to hone the political satire, restoring its cutting edge.

Loren Sherman, who has designed the scenery for this new Finian's Rainbow, says that his early discussions with the production's director, Lonny Price, centered on finding the right unifying look. (Sherman and Price last collaborated on Visiting Mr. Green, which, with its combination of laughter, tears, and Eli Wallach had a healthy run Off Broadway two seasons ago.) "Lonny feels there are three parts to the story," says Sherman, referring to 1) The satire of racism and politics; 2) The "mythical" comedy of leprechauns and magical spells; and 3) The romance between Sharon and Woody. "The set has to allow all of these things to happen and live together comfortably," says the designer, who adds, "It's a revival, but it shouldn't be a fuddy-duddy revival."

Sherman cheerfully admits these problems left him just a little bit stuck until he picked up a book by the Czech stage designer Josef Svoboda, an act that empowered him to move "in a very abstract direction." Most of the action takes place in a single location, "a clearing in a field"; the raked deck curves up at the rear, "like a photographer's backdrop," adds the designer. "The back is a compound curve, so it has a shallow, U-shaped valley. It's almost like a banked bicycle track in back--Lonny loves to have actors enter from the rear as if they're coming from up over a hill."

The other major scenic element, says Sherman, consists of "enormous leaves--three that roll around on the deck, tilting and twirling, and five that hang overhead, track left and right, and fly at different heights to create different compositions. There's also a tree that tracks on and off--sometimes we see just the branch and sometimes we see the trunk and the branch."

Sherman describes the backdrop as "a patchwork of colors." He adds, "We had gotten so abstract with these big leaves, we didn't know what to do with the backdrop." Then he saw the Finian's Rainbow poster, created by artist Maurice Vellekoop of the advertising agency Spotco. "I had them send me the file for poster's backdrop. I reproportioned it slightly and dropped it into the model. It's the most abstract treatment of a rainbow you could imagine. The colors near the bottom are all greens and earth tones, like patches of fields. Near the top, the patches are more colorful. There's a hint of a rainbow that's always there."

One challenge that is specific to this production came when Price decided he wanted to add a prologue, which shows Finian and Sharon traveling to America and also lightly sketches in the American political situation circa 1947. Thus "Finian throws his handkerchief into the air and it disappears," says Sherman. "At that moment, we fly in an 8'-square screen. It's almost as if the handkerchief has turned into this screen." Then the screen tracks left and right--rather than remaining stationary and receiving projected images, it catches different images as it moves. "We show a composite slide of, on one side, the Irish hills, then the ocean, then the Statue of Liberty, then New York buildings, which are on the far side of the stage. You'll never see it all at once--you'll just see the screen pass through the image." At the end of this sequence, the screen flies out and a number of colored panels rise separately and move into place to form the patchwork backdrop--living proof, if one ever needed it, that the South will surely rise again.

A variety of scenic houses have worked on Finian's Rainbow. Mystic Scenic of Boston engineered the rolling leaf pallets, while Mystic's Orlando branch built the deck. The Coconut Grove Theatre scene shop in Miami built the props and the sky panels. The hanging leaves were built by the scene shop at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Other design personnel on the production include Paul Tazewell (costumes), Phil Monat (lighting), and Kurt Fisher (sound).

Finian's Rainbow opened at the Coconut Grove on October 12 and runs through November 21, then moves to the Palace Theatre in Cleveland running November 30 December 12. Next stop: Broadway, as soon as a theatre becomes available in this year of stage gridlock. Who knows? Perhaps Og will have to cast another spell.

Actors Express at King Plow Art Center, Atlanta, GA: Rescue & Recovery Set design: Lizz Dorsey Costume design: Melissa Mason Lighting design:Daniel Ordower Sound design: Jill Melancon

Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL: The Last Night of Ballyhoo Set design: Michael Smith Costume design: Mark Hughes Lighting design: Mike Post Sound design: Bethany Tucker

Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, GA: A Christmas Carol Set and lighting design: Martyn Bookwalter Costume design: Mariann Verheyen

Arena Stage, Washington, DC: The Royal Family Set and costume design: Zack Brown Lighting design: Nancy Schertler Sound design: Susan R. White

Asolo Theatre Festival/FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Sarasota, FL: Merry Wives of Windsor, The Kentucky Cycle, Parts I and II Set design: Bob Barnett (Kentucky); Jim Kronzer (Windsor) Costume design: Vicki S. Holden (Kentucky); Kaye Voyce (Windsor) Lighting design: James D. Sale (both) Sound design: Matthew Parker (Kentucky); Red Ramona (Windsor)

Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA: Our Town, Wuthering Heights Set design: Lynn Pecktal (Heights); Cheri Prough (Town) Costume design: Amanda Aldrich (both) Lighting design: Kevin Shaw (both) Sound design: Bobby Beck (both)

Caldwell Theatre Co, Boca Raton, FL: The Chalk Garden Set design: Tim Bennett Costume design:Penny Koleos Williams Lighting design:Thomas Salzman Sound design: Steve Shapiro

Center Stage Theatre, Baltimore, MD: An Ideal Husband Set design: Allen Moyer Costume design: Constance Hoffman Lighting design: Mimi Sherin Sound design: John Gromada

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC :Hamlet Set design: Tony Cisek Costume design: Justine Scherer Lighting design: Dan Covey Sound design: Scott Burgess

Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC :A Couple of Blaguards Set design: Troy Houri Costume design: Gloria Parker Lighting design: Marianne Meadows

Horizon Theatre Company, Atlanta, GA: The Batting Cage Set design: Mercedes Schaum Costume design: Lighting design: Pete Shinn Sound design: Dung Nguin

Mill Mountain Theatre, Roanoke, VA: Godspell Set and lighting design: John Sailer Costume design: Jennifer Ruhland

Playhouse on the Square, Memphis, TN: Peter Pan Set design: Joe Ragey Lighting design: Gary Bower

PlayMakers Repertory Company at Paul Green Theatre, Chapel Hill, NC: A Delicate Balance Set design: Rosario Provenza Costume design: McKay Coble Lighting design: James Vermuellen Sound design: Melissa Marquis

Round House Theatre, Silver Springs, MD: Communicating Doors Set design: Tony Cisek Costume design: Rosemary Pardee Lighting design: Ayun Fedorcha

Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA: Sweeney Todd Set design: Lou Stancari Costume design: Anne Kennedy Lighting design: Daniel Maclean Wagner Sound design: David Maddox

Source Theatre, Washington, DC: The Confidential Clerk (a Washington Stage Guild production @Source Theatre) Set design: David Ghatan Costume design:William Pucilowski Lighting design: Marianne Meadows Sound design: Brian Keating

Studio Theatre, Washington, DC :Blueheart Set design: Dan Conway Costume design: Anne Kennedy Lighting design: Michael Ginnitti Sound design: Anthony Angelini

Theatre Virginia, Richmond, VA: Scandals Set and lighting design: Harry Feiner Costume design: George Serofeen

Virginia Stage Company, Norfolk, VA: Blues for an Alabama Sky Set design: Felix Cochren Costume design: Rhyan Shipman Lighting design: John Ambrosone Sound design: Zach Williamson

Wayside Theatre, Middleton, VA: La Bete Set design: Todd Edwards Costume design: Jennifer Chapman Lighting and sound design: Jay Shul