IN HIS "Earth and Water," playwright J.R. Dalton takes four actors impersonating Vietnamese refugees and sets them to drift and bicker, "Lifeboat" style, on a cardboard raft. Making its maiden voyage at New Playwrights' Theater, this sodden drama sinks within minutes.

Driven from their homeland (which translates into "Earth and Water" in English), the four refugees set out for a new land, abandoning their names for symbolic new handles. The old farmer "Dead Hands" is given to spitting contemptuously and yammering about seeds and growing seasons. Distraught mother "No Name" clutches her swaddled infant, the child of an American soldier, which, despite the playwright's efforts to keep us in suspense, is clearly already dead.

The most engaging and developed character is "Bar Girl," a saucy hooker and nightclub dancer who entertained enemy troops. Dalton gives Bar Girl a few salty lines so her shipmates can scorn her, and gratuitously makes her drop her top -- for Buddha. It falls to young, confused "Which Way" to pilot this ship of fools.

Dalton telegraphs his symbols like ship-to- shore semaphore and his prententious and torpid play reveals nothing new or insightful about the war or the condition of its victims. Drowning in mystical I-Ching gobbledygook, the script consists of swapped atrocity stories and fortune cookie maxims delivered in Dalton's version of Vietnamese syntax, which sounds like a bad translation.

It's difficult to imagine any cast coping with this soggy script, and the actors at New Playwrights' are certainly lost at sea. Director Arthur Bartow borrows some staging techniques from Kabuki, but overall he handles the script with a somber, plodding earnestness, resulting in some unintentionally mirthful moments.

Some talent and energy have been expended on "Earth and Water." Lewis Folden has designed a striking floating platform of cardboard and crates, with an awning of unfurled sails. Daniel MacLean Wagner's shifting lighting creates impressions of sea and sky. And the delicate Vietnamese-inspired music, composed and performed by Andras Goldinger on an assortment of unusual percussive devices, tinkles, clangs and reverberates unobtrusively. All these efforts, unfortunately, are cast fruitlessly upon the waters.

EARTH AND WATER -- At New Playwrights' Theater through March 23.