IF "ELEPHANT MAN" John Merrick were alive, he would doubtless be bewildered by all the attention he's getting these days. Following a Broadway play and a movie based on Merrick's case, playwright Joan Schenkar has changed his name and sex for the convenience of plot, making "Jane Merritt" a leading character in her ambitious but confusing play "Signs of Life," at Horizons Theater. Taking a cue from E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," Schenkar has fiddled with fact and fiction, placing historical figures in concocted situations, but with less success.

By paralleling the lives of two remarkable women -- the grotesquely deformed Merritt and Alice James, the neurotically morbid, bedridden sister of novelist Henry James -- Schenkar hopes to show that, beneath its genteel surface, Victorian society was a squirming mass of bizarre private motivations. Schenkar's women are "freaks," exhibited or hidden away at the discretion of parasitic men, who, though they are also neurotic messes, are granted power by society solely because of their gender.

Merritt is hospitalized and tinkered with by Dr. Simon Sloper, who is coincidentally treating Alice James in the same hospital. Apparently, Alice's creative career is stifled by her illness and her family's disapproval, so she finds an outlet in collecting sharp household objects and throwing obscenity fits in public. James is the more interesting of the pair, if only because of the comparative lack of exposure of her story.

The acting doesn't help clarify the Victorian clutter of the drama. Carol Myers and Barbara Klein give intelligent, sensitive performances as Alice James and Jane Merritt respectively. But Nick Mathwick and Nick Olcott, overplaying the roles of P.T. Barnum and Sloper, seem to be in a different play altogether.

Schenkar's writing is interesting -- at its best, her characters speak in poetic or musical rhythms. But at other times this construction, combined with some overripe acting, renders the speeches bookish and lifeless.

Flashy writing doesn't clarify Schenkar's murky and lopsided message. She has peopled her play solely with all-suffering heroines and insensitive, exploitative men, and her quirky strands of thought, though often interesting, are never adequately united.

SIGNS OF LIFE -- At Horizons Theater through December 2.