THE CHILD by Anthony Giardina; directed by Douglas C. Wager; setting by Karl Eigst; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by William Mintzer; music by Tim Eyermann; technical director, Henry Gorfein; with Michael Butler, Randy Danson, Mikel Lambert, Gary Lee Blumsack, Christina Moore, Kevin Donovan, Terrence Currier and Katherine Leask.

At Arena Stage in repertory through May 2.

By and large, the theater is not the place to go for rock-bottom prices on food and drink. Some of our local houses of entertainment, to be candid about it, run their refreshment stands almost as if they had a monopoly going.

But not Arena Stage. Arena seems to feel it is in the business of selling plays, not food. At Arena, a ginger ale and a bag of peanuts will set you back 75 cents. It's one of the best buys in town (especially when, as the woman in front of me in Friday night's refreshment line pointed out, "They could charge anything").

Now this may not have much to do with "The Child," the second installment in Arena's current "carousel of new plays." But in the constant search for something positive to say, it's not always easy to stick to the subject. And it's not easy at all when you're talking about (or you're supposed to be talking about) a production marked by such total harmony of ill-purpose as this one.

Beginning with a fascinating question -- namely, a couple's decision to have either a baby or an abortion -- the playwright, director, designer and cast of "The Child" have joined forces to shroud that question in layers and layers of ersatz profundity and dramaturgical mumbo-jumbo.

For one of its characters, the fetus being nurtured in its mother's womb, this play is a matter of life and death. For the audience, it is nonstop death.

Calling the fetus a "character" is more than a mere figure of speech here.In a dream sequence played behind a suitably dreamy panel of gauze, this unusual fetus swirls into being as the father's vision of his son-to-be, and speaks to us. "And what am I?" asks the fetus (dressed, for some reason, in a sci-fi leotard like the kind Flash Gordon used to wear). "Eyes. Hair. This week fingernails. What are fingernails? What are they for? New things happening to my body frighten me. I see this white thing in front of me, white and huge. These are my hands. I am eyes hands, new fingernails, and one memory . . . and the shape of my memory -- I want to be a real thing. To have happened. Oh, is life as sad out there as it is in here, sometimes?"

The fellow who speaks these lines is said to be the offspring of an earnest, post-'60s, countercultural Boston couple - Leah, a medical student, and Thomas, a truck driver for a milk cooperative. But a very brief acquaintance with the boy convinces me he could only have been produced by the union of a typewriter and a playwright. And his fate couldn't possibly matter to anyone outside the family.

Leah and Thomas, his foster parents, are of the same odd and unmistakable genealogy. They talk in such wispy allusions and enigmes that it's a wonder they don't float clean off the stage and into the rafters. "I reached down and touched him 10 minutes ago," says Leah of the child in her womb. "The feel of him is still on my hand . . . I want to know -- where does he begin? Not my idea of him -- his body, his desires, the hand I feel clutching my brain. Is that his hand or my idea of a hand?"

There is more to a play than dialogue, of course. In this case, there are eight performances, most of them as ethereal as the script. There is some fanciful scenery with folding flats of dyed scrim that look like somebody spilled soup on them. There is incidental music that, once you get used to it, isn't nearly incidental enough.

And there is the structure of a story that might have been built into a play -- if the landlord had been willing to let some flesh occupy the premises along with all that air.