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Threesome Gives `Death and the Maiden' a Grim Edge

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Drama by Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman. At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

WHETHER viewed as a political or psychological thriller, "Death and the Maiden" is grueling theater. The new drama by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman dramatizes after-effects of a dictatorship that ended 15 years before the action begins.

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Mr. Dorfman has pinpointed the personal dilemmas created by the former oppressive regime in the experiences of his three principals. Gerardo Escobar (Richard Dreyfuss) heads the commission appointed by the country's new president to investigate the wrongs that were committed. Escobar is prepared to accept the commission's mandate to probe only those cases that ended in death. "There are limits within limits," he tells his wife Paulina. To the implacable Paulina (Glenn Close), who suffered imprisonment an d rape under the dictatorship, such an approach is totally inadequate.

The couple receives a visit from Roberto Miranda (Gene Hackman), whom Paulina suspects of being the government official who tortured and raped her. To Gerardo's consternation, she imprisons Miranda and ties him to a chair. Brandishing a revolver, she conducts in reverse the interrogation to which she was subjected.

Paulina insists that, as punishment, Miranda compose and sign a confession detailing his crimes. In a terrifying admission of guilt - given its full horror in Mr. Hackman's extraordinary performance - Miranda recalls how he accepted his post and how he was gradually seduced by its excitements. Dorfman concludes his searing drama with an epilogue that supplies a sardonic footnote to the ordeal that has gone before.

Under Mike Nichols's riveting direction, the superb cast maintains the piano-string tautness of the menacing situation. At the melodramatic level, there is constantly the question of whether pistol-packing Paulina will carry out her threat to kill Miranda. Being a playwright of ideas, Dorfman is equally concerned with the philosophical implications of the play.

Ms. Close depicts a Paulina whose delicately icy fanaticism disguises, but by no means conceals, the potential menace in her quest for revenge. Hackman's Miranda can be revolting in his miserable confession and yet remain a recognizable human being whose weakness eventually turned him into a monster. Mr. Dreyfuss creates the image of a temporizing mediator in a situation that is beyond mediation. The admirable trio doesn't shrink from realizing the full grimness of the play.

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