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'Letter' and 'Hecuba' make familiar points with little passion

NEW YORK -- Closeting one's sexuality can be ruinous. War is hell. By now these are truisms -- especially for the typical theatergoing audience.

So if you're going to explore those themes, you had better have something new to say or a new way of saying it. In the case of two highly anticipated productions that recently opened here, ''The Paris Letter" and Tony Harrison's adaptation of Euripides's ''Hecuba" with Vanessa Redgrave, we are not told anything we didn't already know.

With great fanfare, the Huntington Theatre Company commissioned ''The Paris Letter" from Jon Robin Baitz two years ago, but somewhere along the line it got away from the Boston theater. It premiered in Los Angeles late last year prior to this Roundabout Theatre Company staging. A Huntington spokesman cited ''scheduling conflicts with actors . . . and other timing and season planning issues." Artistic director Nicholas Martin e-mailed that it wasn't a subject he wanted to talk about.

Any time you lose a chance to stage a world premiere by a major playwright, particularly when you put up the seed money, has to be a blow. Nevertheless, this is not a play that ranks with Baitz's best, such as ''Three Hotels," ''The Substance of Fire," or ''A Fair Country." Baitz writes very much in the Arthur Miller tradition, though with more humor and a different sensibility. But his characters face similar problems in terms of personal and political compromise: How does one prioritize between responsibilities to family and those to the greater good? How much does one owe to oneself?

These are all good questions, which Baitz usually frames in more interesting ways than here. The play begins with a bang as Sandy Sonnenberg, a Wall Street trader played by Ron Rifkin, tells a young associate who's been swindling their investors to shoot himself. He takes Rifkin up on it, which leads to a series of flashbacks introduced by Anton Kilgallen, played by John Glover.

Sandy had been Anton's lover in the early 1960s, but spurred on by mom and dad as well as his own yearnings for family, the future financier went off to a shrink (also played by Rifkin), who could redirect him toward heterosexuality.

Given such a beginning, you might think that Baitz was going to make some connection between Sandy's personal and professional choices, but the Wall Street angle all but disappears as we learn how Sandy ditched Anton in favor of post-Freudian analysis. The therapy took and he went on to marry Katie, Anton's partner at a New York restaurant.

At best, Baitz and Rifkin (his frequent lead actor) paint a moving portrait of a sad man -- he would have been just as blue, he tells Anton, had he lived the life of an openly gay man. Katie and her son from a previous marriage brought as much joy into his world as he was capable of.

But as soon as the play moves off that mark it devolves into predictable tsk-tsking about the problems of a gay man living a straight life. Sandy protests that repression and denial weren't what his life was about, but Baitz and director Doug Hughes, whose production is never less than stylish, don't give his assertion much support, particularly when Glover is so entertainingly and charismatically on hand to make light of Sandy as a heterosexual.

Of course it was terrible that gay men had to lead straight lives, the key words being ''of course." There isn't much drama in ''of course." Too bad that Hughes didn't treat both sides of the argument as dramatically as he did in his Tony-winning stint as ''Doubt" director.

Or more to the point, too bad that Baitz decided to base a play on material that audiences have gone beyond. Closeted homosexuality was treated with more wit and depth in ''Angels in America" and the attempt by some therapists in the '50s and '60s to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals had more emotional resonance in the 2002 film, ''Far From Heaven."

Compared to the gay men in those works, Sandy is not a particularly interesting fellow.

At least ''The Paris Letter" keeps you wondering where Baitz is going, even if he doesn't arrive at any place special. The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Euripides's ''Hecuba" ends someplace interesting -- adapter Harrison's analogy between the Trojan War and the Iraq War -- but you'll need to patch in an intravenous coffee line in order to get there.

This is a production of ''Hecuba" with no director listed, which seems appropriate considering how everyone onstage seems to be in his or her own play. (The original director's name, Laurence Boswell, was removed.) The chorus stands around singing and most of the actors barely move a muscle from the neck down.

With two exceptions. One is Redgrave, who dances around the stage as the aggrieved queen of Troy as if she were revisiting one of her great film roles, Isadora Duncan. With bent-body pleas to spare her daughter and her eyes and arms calculating how to avenge her son, Redgrave at least puts on a show, even if it seems self-indulgent next to her cohorts.

It's Darrell D'Silva as Polymestor, though, the object of Hecuba's vengeance, who finds an articulate middle ground between Redgrave's balletic moves and the other actors' stiffness. D'Silva conveys not only the horror of losing one's family, but Harrison's more contemporary sensibility that one rightfully aggrieved powerless avenger is another person's terrorist, a word Harrison inserts into his adaptation.

With so little passion onstage, though, it's hard to feel much for anyone or any issue. Hecuba is just another mad mother, even with Redgrave trying to position her somewhere between Mother Courage and Medea to drive home the point that war is hell.

But you knew that.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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