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Off Broadway taps 19th century -- Lewis Carroll to John Wilkes Booth

Off Broadway has been looking back to the 19th century of late. ''The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs'' recalls widely divergent manifestations of life and literature in the British Isles of Queen Victoria's day. The same is true of the recently closed ''Looking-Glass.'' On the other side of the Atlantic, ''Booth,'' another short-lived production, grappled once more with the bizarre and ultimately fatal behavior of President Lincoln's murderer. The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs Play based on a short story by George Moore. Written and directed by Simone Benmussa. Translated by Barbara Wright.

The Manhattan Theater Club has greeted the new season with a play of haunting poignancy and strong but delicate emotional force. In creating a stage version of George Moore's ''The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,'' French writer-director Simone Benmussa demonstrates how imaginative adaptation can add its own dimensions and insights to a work created for another medium.

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''Albert Nobbs'' tells quite simply how the illegitimate daughter of an apparently good family (actress Glenn Close) falls on hard times and, for reasons of economic survival, assumes male dress to earn her living as a waiter. A similarly disguised house painter (Lucinda Childs) confides to Albert that, in order to have a home, she and another woman have entered into a sham marriage. The confidence prompts Nobbs to find a partner for such an arrangement. The attempt fails and leads to the little waiter's slow decline.

'' 'Albert Nobbs' is not a play about transvestites,'' writes Miss Benmussa in explaining her play. ''Their male dress is the disguise two women have had to assume in order to protect themselves from the brutal consequences of poverty, to find work, and to keep their jobs. Their masculine appearance, then, comes from dire necessity, and necessity lends itself no more to laughter than to pleasure. That a woman must cease to be a woman in order to assert her right to work is a fact too often forgotten in the class struggle, a fact which appears in a different form today, but which is still as tenacious.''

Onstage, ''Albert Nobbs'' is far from being an exercise in feminist propaganda. Instead, in the delicately restrained performance directed by the author, it is quietly touching and decorously theatrical. Miss Close's Albert is a model of diligently acquired deference as the waiter serves the guests of an 1860's Irish hotel, dreaming of the possibilities of financial independence and an innocent domestic bliss.

Pippa Pearthree, Anna Levine, and Patricia O'Connell contribute valuably to the unfolding narrative and to the kind of believable make-believe essential to the success of this kind of playmaking. Miss Benmussa has designed her own beautiful production, with Ron Placzek and Mal Sturchio credited respectively in the program as scenery and lighting supervisors. The men in the cast figure only as offstage voices - principally David Warrilow as sometime-narrator George Moore. Miss Benmussa and her American colleagues have collaborated to produce a work of genuine theatrical creativity. Looking-Glass Play by Michael Sutton and Cynthia Mandelberg. Directed by David H. Bell.

''Looking-Glass'' attempts to brighten up the gloomy Entermedia Theater with a biographical fantasy whose lively stage effects outclass its dramatic invention. Michael Sutton and Cynthia Mandelberg have written a delightful first act, in which diffident but slyly humorous mathematician Charles Ludwige Dodgson (John Vickery) enrolls at Oxford, where he falls fortuitously into the clutches of fellow students Robinson Duckworth (Nicholas Hormann) and William Hayden (Richard Peterson).

These genial conspirators discover the manuscript of ''Alice,'' persuade Dodgson to let it be published, and help create the nom de plume and persona of Lewis Carroll.

According to Sutton and Mandelberg, the break with the Liddell family after the discovery of the nude photographs Dodgson had taken of the real Alice (the little girl to whom the stories were first told) had a shattering effect on the author. He renounced his pseudonym, became adamantly reclusive, and wrote no more children's books for many years. In historical fact, Carroll's principal works for children and their dates are ''Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'' ( 1865), ''Through the Looking Glass'' (1872), and ''The Hunting of the Snark'' ( 1876). He also wrote mathematical treatises and was mathematical lecturer at Oxford from 1855 to 1881. So much for the basic record.

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Not surprisingly, ''Looking-Glass'' is at its most entertaining when it abandons pseudo-biography for fanciful imagining. The playwrights borrow scraps and snippets from the Carroll texts. The actors transform themselves into creatures and characters from the Alice stories, entering enthusiastically into the fun and games devised by director David H. Bell. Mr. Vickery is as engaging a Dodgson-Carroll as the script allows.

Besides the unflaggingly upbeat Messrs. Hormann and Peterson, the supporting players (most of whom perform multiple roles) include Tara Kennedy (Alice), Richard Clarke and Tudi Wiggins (the Liddells), Innes-Fergus McDade (Alice's governess), and Robert Machray (Carroll's vengeful rival). The Carrollesque interludes are brightly enhanced by designers John Arnone (scenery), Frances Aronson (lighting), and Jeanne Button (costumes). David Spangler and Marc Elliot wrote the incidental music. Booth. Drama by Robert A. Morse. Directed by Christopher Catt

In art as in life, enough is as good as a feast. More than enough can be too much. Such seems to be the case with Robert A. Morse's historical-tragical ''Booth.'' Mr. Morse crowds the stage of the little South Street Theater with fleeting incidents, flashbacks, soliloquies, play-within-a-play atmospherics, and narrative inserts to dramatize the life and conspiracies of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln.

''Booth'' begins in 1863 as John Wilkes mischievously disrupts brother Edwin's rehearsal for a New York performance of ''Julius Caesar.'' (Shakespeare's tragedy supplies a recurrent reference point for Mr. Morse's mingling of fact and speculation.) The plotter's trail ends in 1865 in Virginia as the entrapped murderer demands to be treated as a military officer instead of a common criminal. Between the two episodes, ''Booth'' explores the progressive degeneration of a distinguished but unstable actor whose instability turned into demented obsession.

John Glover strikingly portrays Booth as a talented but irresponsible play-actor whose delusions of dedication to the Confederacy went tragically haywire. The production directed by Christopher Catt receives verismo performances from a cast whose members, with the exception of Mr. Glover, play multiple roles, ranging from Laura Keene to an odiously sinister Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The actors and their principal parts are Michael Nouri (Edwin Booth), Michael Connolly (Junius Booth), Jane Cronin (the Booths' mother), Steve Bassett (John Matthews), Howard Korder (John McCullough), and Peter Boyden (Harry Hawk).

For all of its care over detail, ''Booth'' remains a mosaic of fragments, a theatrical kaleidoscope whose central figure lacks any real ideological or philosophical substance. The play does little to illumine John Wilkes's behavior or the surrounding situation. The central conspirator himself remains a shallow creature of fustian rhetoric and, in the end, monstrous delusions.

The excellently atmospheric physical production features David Chapman's adaptable, two-level set, with tattered, banner-like curtains for an added theatrical touch. The remaining technical contributions are credited to Frances Aronson (lighting), Lindsay Davis (costumes), David Spangler (musical sequences) , A. C. Weary (combat choreography), and Lewis Mead (sound).

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