WASHINGTON — `LIFE, you see, has always sidetracked me. I never was on the main track,'' says the character Koko, an elderly Russian straight out of Chekhov, in the contemporary Russian play ``Cerceau,'' now playing at the Arena Stage here. The highly symbolic ``cerceau'' is a pre-revolutionary game played with cross-shaped wooden swords and hoops. It's like a blend of fencing and horseshoes. You lose the game if you don't catch the wooden ring your opponent lofts into the air on your own sword. It makes a lovely, symmetrical metaphor for those who don't catch the ring of life as it whizzes by.
``Cerceau'' premi`ered in 1985 at the Taganka Theatre in Moscow, where it was a sellout. It has also been produced in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and London, where it was part of the 1987 International Festival of the Arts. The author, Viktor Slavkin, has also written ``The Grown-Up Daughter of a Young Man,'' produced at Moscow's Stanislavsky Theater, and three one-act comedies: ``Frost,'' ``Chatanooga Choochoo,'' and ``Bad Flat.''
``You could have lived your whole life with a magnificent woman,'' one of the characters reminds Koko, caped in memories of a long-ago love who lived in the dacha, or cottage, where the play takes place. Koko (Richard Bauer), unable to seize the day or the wife, had left her behind for another life. ``Cowards don't get to play cerceau,'' as playwright Slavkin illustrates.
Koko comes back decades later, holding a yellowed marriage certificate to prove his inheritance as husband. He returns to the dacha, which is a coveted luxury in the Russia of 1983, the time period of the play. But a distant nephew nicknamed Rooster (Charles Gayer) has arrived to claim his inheritance from his aunt. He invites a group of friends, all living in crowded apartments with families doubled up, to spend the weekend at his new country home.
Rooster and his friends are jaded, disillusioned, cynical, and funny - weekend refugees from a society in which there is a nightmare housing shortage, where Big Brother is always watching, and where this kind of larky freedom is a rare treat. One of the characters, Pasha (David Marks) has a degree in history but settles for a job upholstering doors because the pay brings him the comforts he can't afford as an historian. Upholstered doors make those teeming apartments soundproof. This is a generation born under constraints, pre-Gorbachev, pre-glasnost.
THERE are some fine lines in ``Cerceau'' that prove Mr. Slavkin has a gift as a playwright in any language. Among the memorable lines, translated by Danish-born Fritz Brun and Arena dramaturg Laurence Maslon: ``Laziness is the ruin of a long-budding talent.'' Or, on love and marriage, ``Nowadays love means living together, not dying together.'' And there's the related: ``Now we die from a shortage of love, not from a surfeit of it.''
But the play appears to have lost something in translation, because it is often murky, confusing, and difficult to comprehend. Perhaps its talented Romanian director, Liviu Ciulei, has not been able to do the double directing translation from Russian life, through his own Romanian filter, into an American theater.
This is a play steeped in the complexity of Russian life, heavily symbolic, and in need of simplification rather than the overlay of intellect Mr. Ciulei gives it. It does have a poignant nostalgia under his direction, though, particularly in the scenes involving Koko and the reading of his long-ago love letters.
In spite of their vaguely '80s clothes and semi-hipness, the characters in ``Cerceau'' are in some ways like a cast by Chekhov. But they are numbed by the state rather than by 19th-century ennui and futility. They seem, like Chekhov's ``The Three Sisters,'' helpless to get to Moscow, as aimless as the inhabitants of the dacha in ``Uncle Vanya,'' and powerless to stop the cutting down of the ``The Cherry Orchard.''
As Koko, Mr. Bauer is deeply touching and Chekovian in this contemporary play. He gives a poetic performance in the style of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock.
Among the others in a good cast: Pamela Nyberg as Nadya, Randy Danson in a disciplined performance as Valyusha, John Leonard Thompson, outstanding as Lars, Jed Diamond as Vladimir Ivanovich, Pamela Nyberg as a volatile Nadya, and David Marks as Pasha.