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This war is hell on the home front

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ABSURDISM has long been the style of choice for writers interested in depicting the madness of a war-torn world.

Ariel Dorfman, best known for his politically charged drama "Death and the Maiden," is the latest to attempt the tricky genre, with his one-act play "The Other Side," now at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

The intermissionless 85-minute piece depicts the desperate situation suffered by Atom (John Cullum) and Levana (Rosemary Harris), an elderly couple living smack dab in the middle of a hellish landscape. Their modest house is in a no-man's land on the border between two warring countries, and they make their modest living recovering and burying the bodies of the fallen combatants.

Their life, such as it is, is interrupted by the arrival of a brusque guard (Gene Farber), who announces that the war is over- and that the new border runs through the middle of their home. Any time one of them wants to go to the bathroom or the kitchen, a visa is required, and nearly every other household activity requires a slew of bureaucratic forms.

Meanwhile, Levana has come to believe that the interloper is actually the couple's son, who'd run away many years earlier. The pair attempts to bond with the guard, but their efforts at forging an emotional connection are undercut by unexpected events.

While the metaphor is reasonably evocative, its thinness becomes apparent very quickly, and Dorfman fails to provide the wit necessary to sustain the concept.

It's unfortunate, both because of the play's relevance and the typically strong performances by the veteran stars. While it might have been highly effective as a brief one-act, in full-length form "The Other Side" feels both precious and attenuated.

THE OTHER SIDECity Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St.; (212) 581-1212. Through Jan. 15.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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