Death and the Maiden turns out to be a lot like a political candidate: lots of promises, and always the hope of answers to it all. But South American playwright Ariel Dorfman sidetracks us with credibility problems--always a bad sign when it comes to politics--and ends up so muddling what he has to say that the side show becomes the point of it all. And it's not such a riveting side show, either.

Dorfman's play, now being presented by Arizona Theatre Company, centers on a victim of kidnaping, torture and rape during the totalitarian regime of a country that is "probably Chile," the program tells us. Now, 15 years later, Paulina still reacts to a strange car's pulling into her driveway by grabbing a gun and hiding behind the drapes. She's married to Gerardo, an idealistic lawyer who has just been appointed to the newly formed human-rights commission of the succeeding democratic government. He is optimistic about the future; Paulina remains skeptical and frightened.

After several scenes of transparent plot manipulation--Gerardo tediously explains how his car had a flat tire, he had no car jack, he was helped by a stranger--the situation is set up. The helpful stranger drops him off at home, then shows up again later that night to offer even more assistance.

The play finally gets where it's going when Paulina, listening at the doorway as Gerardo and Good Samaritan Dr. Miranda have a midnight chat, thinks she recognizes the voice of her torturer. Unaware of his wife's suspicions, Gerardo invites the man to spend the night. As soon as both men are asleep, Paulina gets her gun, knocks out Dr. Miranda and ties him to a kitchen chair. Insisting that Dr. Miranda is her man, despite the fact that she had been blindfolded during her torture, she demands a kangaroo court.

The play never progresses much past this point, except as a hothouse domestic drama with people flinging threats and ultimatums. The characters plead, cajole and become wearisome and repetitive. Paulina is so deranged it overshadows her status as victim. The question of her sanity relegates all she says to the ravings of a crazy lady. Gerardo feels enough loyalty to give her the benefit of the doubt, but as a human-rights lawyer, he can't exactly condone trying a man for war crimes at his kitchen table.

Death and the Maiden takes its themes seriously, but they were laid so awkwardly onto the dramatic structure that they ended up making little sense. Although the dialogue refers to retribution, guilt and accountability, the emotional content of the play was strictly interpersonal--what should a husband do for a wife who's deranged and waving a gun? Nothing was resolved.

The play, while ostensibly portraying a victim's point of view, even patronized its victim at times. The opening contained bits of offhand misogyny that the playwright apparently thought humorous, but that put the audience at the Herberger in an uncomfortable quandary. Paulina is such a scatterbrain, she lent the car jack to her mother, the two men heh-heh before the play gets serious. Then they quote a little Nietzsche on the inscrutability of the female soul.

This may mean that because Paulina is female, she is doubly a victim. But then, Paulina's constant "female" hysteria only further muddies the waters. The playwright might even be proffering her femininity as an excuse for such irrational behavior. A play about women as political victims and women perceiving themselves as victims would provide ample material to explore, but Death and the Maiden blew that off, generalizing how women victims might stereotypically be expected to act.

Dorfman's play has enjoyed a variety of public response--it originated in London and achieved smashing success there. It opened on Broadway in 1992 for a limited run, with the drawing power of Hollywood stars in the three roles: Glenn Close as Paulina, Richard Dreyfuss as her husband and Gene Hackman as the doctor. The New York production was criticized for substituting Hollywood flash for South American realism, and the American actors couldn't disguise the machinations of the plot with depth of character enough to please most critics.

This production suffered from the same fatal flaw--Maggie Palomo looked wild-eyed as she waved about the large pistol, but you just wanted her husband to overpower her and have her carted off. Geno Silva was able to keep up the did-he-or-didn't-he charade until the end, but his blustering anger as the supposedly wronged doctor got to be wearying, as well. Luis Perez as Gerardo was the weakest actor of the three, spouting earnest political convictions that were meaningless in the domestic crisis and usually insipid. By the time he was pleading forgiveness for his extramarital affairs, his character seemed to bend whichever way the wind was blowing. None of the characters had much place to go with the material given them, and none of the actors was able to create anything on his or her own to keep it interesting.

In the end, Death and the Maiden is a play about politics only in that three people talk about political issues while one is confined in another's house. The play promises a lot, but delivers only an intermittently interesting mystery with no satisfying conclusion.