LOVELETTERS ON BLUE PAPER -- At the Folger through March 23.

The trouble with a lopsided love story is that it becomes less a story about love than one about lopsidedness.

The hero of "Love Letters on Blue Paper" at the Folger Theater, is a retired labor leader and aspiring art critic who is dying of leukemia. But although he is consumed by thoughts of death, he confides them all to a friend, telling his wife nothing of what is happening with either his body or his soul. And he scornfully passes on to the friend the intimate and passionate letters that his wife, presumably sensing the truth, has suddenly taken to writing him.

The playwright, Arnold Wesker, is trying to pass this off as a love story.

This depends on love's being defined as something a woman can sustain alone, while a man's higher feelings are reserved for working out his own soul with a friend he apparently considers more his intellectual equal. Whatever offhand attentions the man has paid his wife over decades of marriage are exalted by her into an astounding love affair that she alone recalls.

There is certainly something awesome about the passion of a rather magnificently rigid woman -- as Tresa Hughes plays the pitiful wife, straining beyond the meager confines of the role -- being moved to struggle to express in writing what marriage has meant to her. According to the letters, which are broadcast to us as she silently putters about her domestic tasks, she was awakened, shaped and thrilled by the love of this man.

But what about his testimony? The role of the dying man, dryly played by William Myers, gives no evidence of that bond between them. The strongest emotion he seems to have for her is a bit of gratitude, sarcastically expressed, for the frequency with which she supplies him with fresh pillowcases. His pity is all for himself, and he cares to confide it only to a young professor who should be commended for undertaking all this tedious beside duty.

Not that he trying to spare his wife: Displaying her letters to his friend, and telling him to witness how crazy she is, is such an insensitive act as to call into question all the professional humanitarianism with which the story credits the man. Her failure to perceive this contempt in him makes her seen a fool for persisting.

And yet there is no evidence that the play is intended to be ironic. It is obviously designed to express, as existing simultaneously but unconnectedly, a man's self-love and a woman's selfless love, and to judge them as being of equal value.