THE SINGULAR Life of Albert Nobbs" sinks under its own weight, burdened with leaden and largely undeserved reverence. New Arts Theater's chilly treatment of Irish writer George Moore's short story, about a woman who lives her entire life disguised as a man, makes for a very long 90 minutes.

As adapted for the stage by Simone Benmussa, Moore's slight story, said to be based on a true case, provides the framework for a rather dry treatise on sexual inequity and Victorian emotional repression.

A poor young woman assumes a man's name and persona to take a job as a waiter in a Dublin hotel, and she/he enjoys the wages and privileges available only to men, learning a good deal about both sides in the process. Her subterfuge eventually takes its emotional toll. Love is needed, and our hero-ine starts thinking about marrying a woman, a difficult and ultimately defeating task.

You'd think director Robert McNamara would make room for a smile in all this dreary earnestness, but the material is handled with strength-sapping solemnity from the very outset, when a pair of hotel maids march up the aisle like acolytes at a funeral procession.

A goodly number of lines are given to offstage voices, and they are delivered on tape in hammy brogues by John Neville-Andrews, Krystov Lindquist and others. This live-and- Memorex gimmick drains more of the blood from the proceedings.

As Albert, Hannah Weil makes an occasionally convincing boy, and the rest of the cast is adequate. The set by John Antone, lighting by Chris Townsend and costumes by Ric Thomas Rice are handsome, as we've come to expect of New Arts Theater.