Is soap opera the one thing that unites us all? Such a question inevitably arises during ''The Promise," Aleksei Arbuzov's look at the lost loves of the Russian postwar generation, being given its Boston premiere by the scrappily ambitious Basement on the Hill Stage.
Arbuzov was one of the Soviet era's most successful playwrights, but if you imagine his work therefore consists of a medicinal dose of socialism, think again. ''The Promise" (which saw dozens of Russian productions, and a successful West End run with Ian McKellen) turns out to be a smoothly constructed historical romance -- more ''The Way We Were" than ''Ten Days That Shook the World."
But whereas American soap tends to scrub off its political context, Arbuzov frames his action with it -- at a certain delicate distance. ''The Promise" begins in the siege of Leningrad, then fast-forwards to the celebration after the war, then again to the Nikita Khruschev ''thaw."
History serves as mere backdrop, however, to the tale of three abandoned youngsters thrown together in the subhuman conditions of Leningrad in 1942. Their trials, and eventual survival, forge a predictable bond -- and an equally predictable triangle. Marat (Walter Belenky), the idealistic engineer, and Leonidnik (Jedediah Baker), the idealistic poet, both love Lika (Sara Petersen), the idealistic doctor -- and of course they love each other, too (just not that way). So what's an idealistic comrade to do? (There's an obvious solution, but I guess Arbuzov saw FranÃ§ois Truffaut's ''Jules and Jim" rather than Noel Coward's ''Design for Living.")
If its conflicts sound obvious, however, a certain restrained poise keeps ''The Promise" from overheating, while Arbuzov's ear for stoicism adds a poignant tinge to all the idealism. And there's his matter-of-fact evocation of the horrors of war, from the starvation-level sugar rations (Lika swallows hers in one gulp) to the desperate burning of family photographs for warmth.
''Let us look truth in the face!" one character demands, but little can be said when someone marries the wrong person, or loses an arm in battle. As for Stalin, he's never openly discussed; when this trio tries to make a toast, they wind up drinking in silence instead.
Suggesting such unspoken depths would challenge more seasoned actors than those of Basement on the Hill; still, even if the performances here feel superficial, they're obviously heartfelt, and all three young performers have enough presence to keep us intrigued by what they're not saying and why.
Petersen has the best handle on her character's maturation, while Belenky offers an open, almost childlike take on his frustrated emotion. And if Baker misses the dark side of his distant poet, he compensates with a winningly wry sense of humor.
Director Lilia Levitina, a Russian Ã©migrÃ© herself, has staged this naturalistic script in a strikingly abstract style, a decision that sometimes exacerbates, but just as often compensates for, the gaps in the acting. At any rate, she's been greatly aided and abetted by her talented design team; the look (and sound) of ''The Promise," while done on a shoestring, is rarely less than evocative. The eerie video projections were particularly memorable; playwright Arbuzov may leave Stalin unmentioned, but his grinning image haunts this ''Promise" like a grim ghost in the machine of Soviet history.