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All in the Name of Love and War : ‘My Poor Marat,’ a Russian play set in a city under siege, is about two men who are in love with the same woman.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

“My Poor Marat,” a modern Russian play about a love triangle, remains a Cold War-era theatrical curiosity in an overly grave, chastely bittersweet staging at the Wild Side Theatre.

A huge hit with Moscow theatergoers in the mid-'60s, Russian playwright Aleksei Arbuzov’s three-character, World War II-inspired drama about two men enthralled with the same woman looks sweetly old-fashioned in the post-Soviet and post-Wall ‘90s.

Unrequited and unexpressed love is a timeless subject, of course, particularly in a city under siege, where the play’s action unfolds. We encounter the star-crossed characters as they tumble into a cold room in an apartment house.

The sense of fear, frost and carnage is brought to multimedia life by Sam Longoria’s vivid, ear-splitting sound design and by the surreal newsreel projections of frozen, starving, 1942 Leningrad. Despite the fuzzy and grainy film, the effect, far from distracting, nicely embroiders upon the interior drama before us.

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But the playing out of a romantic triangle from 1942 to 1959 in the same Leningrad apartment and over three acts and two intermissions does become excessive. The production can’t sustain the near-three-hour evening, despite the sensitive direction of Avner Garbi and the tremulous portrayals of the actors (Thomas Rhett Kee, Lori Ann Lesmeister and Steven F. Anderson).

They are observed in a kind of “design for living” continuum, first during the savagery of 1942 when the young trio forges a bond for life, and then in 1946 when the two men return from the war to reunite with the woman they can’t forget.

Though burdened by too many pregnant pauses, the actors age subtly as the staging leaps to 1959, where by now the woman is married to one of her love-smitten admirers (Anderson’s hard-drinking, self-pitying poet). But it’s marriage to the wrong guy and, in the play’s best writing, the woman’s life is quietly but wrenchingly transformed by true love with the “poor” Marat--a bridge-builder whom Kee invests with suppressed heartache.

The recent translation by Angelina Bulbenko does catch the sense of deathless Russian rhythms, but you wonder at the veracity of the production’s dour tone, and you even sense a comic spirit somewhere in the play that got muffled in this interpretation.

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Where and When What: “My Poor Marat.” Location: Wild Side Theatre, 10945 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Price: $12. Call: (213) 466-1767.


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