Four Vietnamese boat people, adrift in the China Sea, ponder their fate in "Earth and Water," the new play by J.R. Dalton, which opened Sunday night at the New Playwrights' Theatre.

Will they get to the promised land? Will there be nourishment? Will they be given new names? What will the words be?

It will not take you long to realize that these are not the simple questions of war-torn refugees. They are Big Metaphysical Questions in humble disguise! The China Sea, it turns out, is really the Great Literary Ocean. The raft is the HMS Symbolic. And the characters, as Dalton himself observes in a program note, "are all of us. They are each other."

As if to stave off the obvious criticism, New Playwrights' is describing "Earth and Water" as "a ritualistic tone poem." It is certainly bereft of drama.

Dalton uses the plight of the boat people merely as a point of departure for his own meditations on destiny and change. Bar Girl, Dead Hands (a rice farmer), No Name (a grieving mother) and Which Way (the pilot of the raft) are not so much real persons, as states of mind. They all speak the same spare and measured language. Even their rare outbursts of passion are meticulously controlled.

Occasionally, Dalton lets them relate bits and pieces of their past lives. For the most part, the dialogue purposefully forsakes the particular for the general, not to say the abstract. A typical exchange runs like this:

Which Way: "We must gather strength."

Bar Girl: "What is strength?"

W.W.: "Courage."

B.G.: "What is courage?"

W.W.: "Courage is the wisdom to endure."

No Name: "It rises from the spray."

B.G.:"I see only darkness."

Some, I daresay, will see only pretension. "Earth and Water's" 80 intermissionless minutes are not exactly calculated to keep you on the edge of your seat. Either you plug into its metaphors or you don't. There are no other options.

Actually, there is one. For a while, "Earth and Water" is lovely to look at. Lewis Folden's set -- a cardboard-covered raft, pitched between the deep blue sea and a shimmering white sail -- is not without poetry, and Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting delicately enhances the impression. A stagehand, dressed in black, pads silently about the stage, Kabuki-style, tending gracefully to the few props and wafting swatches of blue silk to simulate the waves. There's also an evocative score, played by Andras Goldinger. Far more than Dalton's words, it is the underlying music -- the thunder of drums, the raindrop tinkle of wind chimes -- that contributes to the play's waning and waxing moods.

As for the actors, they seem -- understandably -- to be trapped in a performing no man's land. The studied formality of Arthur Bartow's direction counters their natural inclination toward psychological realism. As a result, they aren't particularly credible as characters, and they don't look very comfortable as symbols. Now and again, the exquisite Kathryn L. Jones threatens to pull off the synthesis as Bar Girl, and Carlos Juan Gonza'lez has a churlish vigor as the rice farmer, given to spitting contemptuously at the utterances of his fellow drifters. But Gregory J. Ford (Which Way) and Mary R. Woods (No Name) are mired in impossible parts.

Dalton's title is a literal translation of "Vietnam." That, too, I'm sure, is a rich source of meaning. More to the point, in this instance, is the comment of my theater-going companion, who roused herself from somnolence at the play's end to observe that earth and water make mud.

Earth and Water, by J.R. Dalton. Directed by Arthur Bartow; sets, Lewis Folden; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; properties, Karen O. Brown. With Carlos Juan Gonza'lez, Gregory J. Ford, Kathryn L. Jones, Mary R. Woods, Susan Levitas, Andras Goldinger. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through March 23.