The play promises once again to be the thing in the London theater this fall, following a season dominated by so-so musicals.

Adding their unique luster are two ever-popular British Dames - Diana Rigg and Judi Dench - alongside a TV heroine, the singular Helen Mirren of "Prime Suspect" fame, playing Shakespeare's Queen of the Nile in "Antony and Cleopatra" for the third time.Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman makes her London stage debut in a play about sex, while New York theater veteran Mary Louise Wilson crosses the Atlantic to reprise her award-winning performance as fashion czar Diana Vreeland.

Throw in the return to the London stage of Scottish actor Ewan McGregor ("Trainspotting") and the world premiere of American dramatist Edward Albee's new play, and the lineup promises something for everyone.

Albee's "The Play About the Baby" kicked off the season and runs through Oct. 10 at north London's Almeida Theater.

Those connected with the play were wary of hyping it, beyond saying that it's on a par with other Albee works, including "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and his recent Pulitzer Prize-winner, "Three Tall Women."

Kent is busy directing Diana Rigg in the title role of Racine's "Phedre." They are longtime friends, and Kent staged Rigg's Tony-winning "Medea" on Broadway in 1994.

"Phedre," the French neoclassical tragedy, written in 1677, opened earlier this month to inaugurate a nine-month Almeida residency at the Albery Theater. The tragedy will be joined in repertory Nov. 4 by an earlier Racine play, the 1669 "Britannicus," also starring Rigg and Toby Stephens. It will play in a rotating performance schedule through Nov. 28.

Another small theater making a big noise is the 251-seat Donmar Warehouse, where Nicole Kidman will star with Iain Glen in the two-character play "The Blue Room."

Adapted by David Hare from Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler's "Reigen" (known as "The Round Dance" or "La Ronde"), "The Blue Room" runs through Oct. 31.

It follows by two weeks the prolific Hare acting in his own Royal Court solo play, "Via Dolorosa," directed by Tony-winner Stephen Daldry ("An Inspector Calls").

Sean Mathias, Mirren's director in "Antony and Cleopatra" opening Oct. 20 at the Royal National Theater, said he was undaunted by directing the 52-year-old actress in a role she has played twice before.

"Every great part should be revisited," said Mathias, a one-time Tony nominee ("Indiscretions") marking his Shakespearean directing debut with the Bard's most epic and regal love story.

Mirren's Antony is Alan Rickman, an eleventh-hour replacement for leading man Alan Bates, who tore a ligament.

The National's last Cleopatra, Judi Dench, opens at the Piccadilly Theater Oct. 8 in Italian writer Eduardo de Filippo's lusty "Filu-mena," directed by Peter Hall. It will be Dench's second London theater stint this year following her sellout run in Hare's "Amy's View."

Besides "Antony and Cleopatra," another National Theater play has undergone a change of star.

Antony Sher withdrew at the start of rehearsals from the lead role in writer-director Terry Johnson's "Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick." Replacement Geoffrey Hutchings has stepped into the play about Britain's "Carry On" filmmakers of the 1950s.

Other heavyweight contenders this season include an Old Vic revival of Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning "Amadeus," starring David Suchet as the envy-driven Salieri, and the West End transfer of "The Invention of Love," Tom Stoppard's award-winning play about English poet A.E. Housman, with a bravura performance from John Wood.

"Amadeus" opens Oct. 21 at the Old Vic, followed Nov. 3 at the Theater Royal, Haymarket, by "The Invention of Love."

Lest all this sound too somber, there's a buoyant antidote in Mary Louise Wilson, the New York character actress who brings to London's Hampstead Theater her irresistible solo performance as former Vogue editor - and bona fide character - Diana Vreeland.

Also at the Hampstead, in perhaps the season's most intriguingly titled play, is Ewan McGregor, 27, who stars in a revival of David Halliwell's 1964 "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs." The production, which opens Nov. 18, will be directed by McGregor's uncle, Denis Lawson.