Warren Adler's new play, "Knight of the Ocean Sea," sketches the story of Christopher Columbus without ever revealing his mystery. While Catholic University's Hartke Theater could have given it a better reading, not even the most artful production would make up for the play's basic shallowness.

The problem, over two acts that bustle with activity but have no dramatic thrust, is that Columbus drifts from map-seller to great explorer with hardly a human struggle. Adler has written some snappy lines, making the play occasionally amusing, but he gives Columbus only abstractions to deal with, while the hero himself is pretty much an abstraction.

Why, for instance, is this humble son of a Genoese wool merchant -- as the characters often call him -- so completely obsessed with a route to the Indies? "I tell you, it's in my mind's eye." "It burns my insides. I can't sleep. My body juices choke me." "Lord, you have afflicted me with the worst plague of all -- an idea." But that's about as far as it goes.

As for the other characters, from the hero's hapless mistress to the King and Queen of Spain, they tumble before the hero's will like a windblown house of cards. Pedro Sanchez, the play's Sancho Panza, offers one reason: "Better to follow one man with a dream like yours than a thousand without one" -- which seems as unconvincing as it is hackneyed. "I have never seen a man so certain he is right," says King Ferdinand, which still doesn't account for why anyone believes him.

Adler, apparently intent on sending a message, continually has characters mention the hero's Jewish ancestry, so that Columbus, an avowed Christian, can lament the banishment of Jews from Spain at play's end ("I bled in my veins as I watched them leave"). Perhaps this surprising speech -- from a man who, until now, seems interested only in his obsession -- lets the playwright condemn the Spanish Inquisition. It sure doesn't do much to expose the hero's soul.

As Columbus, Philip LeStrange seems a prisoner of the role's shortcomings, never breaking out of a wooden and awkward portrayal. He also seems a bit unfocused: The other night, when he scratched his beard, it looked like LeStrange's itch, not Columbus's. Meanwhile, the whole cast seems hampered by director William Graham's blocky, stolid staging. Every scene gets played as if in tableau.

KNIGHT OF THE OCEAN SEA -- At the Hartke Theater through October 24.