AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Anthony Giardina, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser; directed by Michael Lessac; settings by Tony Straines; costumes by Marjorie Slatman; lighting by William Mintzer, dramaturgy by Douglas Wager.

With Michael O'Keefe, Leslie Cass, Halo Wines, Debra Monk, Marcia Hyde, Annalee Jefferies, James Jenner, David Toney, Kurt Everhart Mark Hammer, Terrence Currier, Enest Graves, Timothy Jerome, Christina Moore and Joanne Hrkach.

At Arena Stage through June 22.

No American novel has wormed its way into more reading lists and fewer student's hearts than "An American Tragedy." Subtlety, humor, convincing dialogue and graceful prose are only a few of the virtues that Theodore Dreiser in general, and this book in particular, are justly not known for. But when Dreiser turned a real-life murder case of the teen years of the century into the fictional tale of Clyde Griffiths and his frenetic struggle up the social and economic ladder, he created one of those rare stories that seem to embody something basic and frightening about a whole society.

And when Arena Stage commissioned playwright Anthony Giardina to do a new stage adaptation of "An American Tradedy," the goal must have been to spring Dreiser's powerful allegory free of the shackles of his crude style. But the play that resulted, and that opened last night, succeeds only in finding a few new ways to be heavy-handed.

The plot (probably best-known through the 1951 movie "A place in the Sun") begins with Clyde's teenage embarrassment over his parents' poverty and their careers as sidewalk evangelists. Religion, opiate of the masses though it may be, will not keep Clyde down, so he runs away and goes to work as a bellhop, and later wangles a job in his aristocratic uncle's shirt-collar factory.

There, looked down on by his rich relatives, he has an affair with one of his subordinates -- an ignorant farm girl named Roberta -- and then drops her for the elegant, haughty Sondra. Discovering that Roberta is pregnant, he makes her try to induce a miscarriage and, failing, decides to kill her. Although he has misgivings when the time comes, they argue and Roberta happens to fall out of their rowboat. Roberta seems to act out his fantasy without his help, falling from the rowboat and drowning while Clyde watches, frozen.

The novel has long and sprawling, and Giardina's version is, sensibly, a cinematic sequence of many scenes -- mostly short ones -- uninterrupted by realistic set changes or entrances and exits. But while the adaptation flows smoothly, the smoothness is achieved at the expense of any real excitement. What ought to be the dramatic high points of the story are neither dramatic nor high.

The boat scene -- memorable in an otherwise overblown movie because of Shelley Winters' poignant pouting and Montgomery Clift's harrowing case of nerves -- is confused and anticlimactic here. It comes directly after a pretentious and cliched scene in which Clyde hears voices calling from inside his head. But when we really need to know what's happening in there -- when he is deciding, presumably, that he can't go ahead with the murder -- all we can see are two people trying to make conversation in a boat.

Now and again Giardina has added lines that are earthier and subtler than Dreiser's but he has not tampered with the basic battleship-gray color of the characters and their dialogue. So we have Clyde's uncle cautioning him: "Be careful, Clyde. Remember, you're a Griffiths. It wouldn't do to have a Griffiths seen about with just anyone, would it?"

The love scenes have more life than the rest of the play, thanks partly to superior performances by Annalee Jefferies as Roberta and Marcia Hyde as Sondra. Jefferies takes one of the oldest sexual routines in literature and life -- the reluctant woman fending off a man's advances -- and gives it fresh tension and credibility. But the text sells her short at the end, when it requires her to deliver an inane speech urging Clyde to kill her. "I'll just scream and then be gone forever," she says, in what is supposed to be his fantasy. Would a murderer really imagine his victim talking that way?

As Clyde, Michael O'Keefe seems to have decided -- or to have been directed -- to play the part as though he hasn't quite recovered from being shot with a tranquilizer gun. This is an unemotional character -- that's a large part of his problem -- but such even and utter unemotion as O'Keefe gives him has a way of infecting the audience. Just the same, O'Keefe is a believable Midwestern, social-climbing American kid, and if he never makes us care much about Clyde's fate, it may be because neither the novel or the adaptation gives him the means.

Working on a spare but seductive set by Tony Straiges, director Michael Lessac succeeds in evoking the period and the locations of "An American Tragedy" through delicate touches in the lighting, sound, costume and prop departments. So we believe we're where we're supposed to be, but the play never provides us with any very compelling reason for being there.