Long before "women's lib" became a familiar concept, playwrights dealt with the notion of women who broke with social expectations and lived independently. In America in 1932, S.N. Behrman wrote a thoughtful, entertaining piece called "Biography," currently being given an outstanding production at the American Century Theater.

"Biography" tells the story of a painter, Marion Froude (Jennifer Hopkins), who is known for the portraits of famous men she has painted. The scene is 1931 in Marion's New York City apartment, where she is visited by an old friend, Melchior Feydak (Craig Miller) and Richard Kurt (Daniel Corey), a young man with a proposition.

The proposition is that Marion write her autobiography, including stories about all the famous men she has known, perhaps to feed the public's hunger for sensationalism.

» Where: American Century Theater, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
» When: Through June 29
» Info: $32 to $40; 703-998-4555; americancentury.org

The first to object to Marion's autobiography is ex-boyfriend Leander Nolan (Jon Townson), a future senator from Tennessee who does not want his past relationship with Marion made public, as he fears it will endanger the election and alienate his fiancee, Slade Kinnicott (Caitlyn Conley). Slade's father, Orin Kinnicott (Joe Cronin), is equally concerned about Marion's ability to "dishonor" his future son-in-law.

As the plot develops, the characters sympathetic to Marion and her storied past, Feydak, Kurt and Marion's friend Warwick Wilson (Frank Britton), are seen to be sensible and sensitive. Nolan and the Kinnicotts are small-minded and concerned only for their own welfare.

But Behrman is too good a dramatist to let "Biography" descend into a battle between good and evil. He creates an odd alliance between Slade and Marion and gives an undertone of vulnerability to Kurt.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola keeps the comedy moving swiftly and smoothly, capitalizing on Behrman's wit and insight into human nature. Hopkins is excellent as Marion, playing the part at dazzling, high-energy speed, pumping intense feeling into her several swift emotional reversals.

Corey is equally good as Kurt, a miner's son who has invented his life. He is tough as nails at the beginning of the play but grows more likeable as he comes to love Marion. Miller plays Feydak as a genuinely good friend to Marion.

Conley turns in a superb performance as the unconventional Slade. Cronin is appropriately slimy as her wheeling-dealing father and Townson is convincingly a man without a moral center, as he shifts from desiring power to desiring Marion.

At the end of the play, Behrman uses an old device to extract Marion from her poverty, but by then Behrman has proven that Marion is a woman who knows her own heart, who is in impressive control of her emotions and it seems fitting that she receives some deserved good luck.