Russian paranoia is a subject that lends itself to a drama that could be at once sobering and chilling. Victor Steinbach, a Russian emigre actor-playwright, has written a black comedy on the subject - entitled ''The Bathers'' - which, at its best, becomes quite ominous. Steinbach contends that the system in the Soviet Union encourages an all-consuming greed, graft, and corruption. And when danger threatens, human caring gives place to ruthless self-preservation.
''The Bathers,'' in its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre here (through May 6), refers to a group of petty politicos in a small, boring city called Pupkov, on the Volga. They have parlayed the construction of a children's athletic center into an exclusive spa/club with all the perquisites. Everything is fine: The cost overruns can be readily accounted for, the lavish meals can be easily justified, even the outrageous amount of time expended on building the center can be explained.
But when a braggart official, head of the local opera house, brings in an outsider (a Moscow set designer), the entire situation is threatened. In their paranoia, the politicos insist that the outsider be silenced. The manner in which the clan forces the braggart to allow his talented young friend to be permanently incarcerated in the local asylum is, in truth, chilling.
What undercuts the play is the heavy-handed use of metaphor and the weak balance between slapstick and drama. The unrelieved coarseness of the humor might perhaps be accurate to the time, place, and people of the drama, but the crude language becomes tiresome.