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'Terra Nova' recalls the race to the South Pole, but loses on stage

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If you take the title literally, you go to Ted Tally's play, ''Terra Nova'' (appearing at the Studio Arena Theatre here until March 11), with hopes of seeing a little new ground broken.

The title refers to the name of a ship commissioned by Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, the British adventurer and explorer, for his fateful attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott has been ruminating about his dubious place in history, which he worries will merit him ''a name on a plaque in the fifth floor of the Admiralty.'' So he tells his pregnant wife that he's off to break new ground with his ship and crew.

Alas, things don't turn out that way . . . for him or for us.

This play, first staged in 1977 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Tally studied, and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1979, attempts to knit together the threads of Scott's unraveling life and thoughts as he and his men perish on their way back from the pole. They were beaten to the punch by a group of ''barbarian'' Norwegians, who turn the trick by using dogs to drag them there , and then eating the dogs on the way back. All of which leads to much philosophizing about the struggle between the human spirit and the beast that supposedly rages in all of us.

''Terra Nova'' fails in its attempt to weave a psychological portrait of man against the elements within and without himself, although it succeeds mildly as a basic survival-of-the-fittest tale. The problem is that, halfway through the first act, you are likely to find yourself sitting there wondering why a regional theater, with only seven productions to offer each year, has chosen to plunk you down in the middle of an icecap.


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