In the heady days after World War II, French novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus (1913-1960) joined the resurgence of French theatre, and three of his plays (Cross-Purposes, Caligula, and The Just) earned him a position in the theatrical vanguard. The original production of Caligula featured stage and film star GĂ©rard Philippe, and the play eventually made it to Broadway. But Camus tended to write extended intellectual debates rather than genuine dramatic action, and his plays have received few productions in recent years. This revival, designed and directed by Chris Covics, makes it clear why.

Caligula was among the maddest and most perversely cruel Roman emperors, notorious for his incestuous love for his sister Drusilla and indulging in baroque atrocities against his own citizens -- until they rose up and murdered him.

Camus begins his play after the death of Drusilla, when Caligula (Jeremy Guskin) is already well-launched in his career of murder, madness, egotism, and extortion. Where others have treated his bizarre career as fodder for pornography (as in the 1979 film), Camus takes an ascetic, restrained approach, searching for the philosophical roots of the emperor's insanity. The result is a talky, arid, curiously abstract narrative in which even Caligula's friends (Michael Hovance, Beau Hirshfield) turn against him. He despairingly murders his loyal mistress, Caesonia (Angela Stern), and longs for death.

Covics deploys his large cast skillfully on his massively impressive set, though the costumes, with their stiff velvets and satins and acres of gold fringe, suggest a third-rate Victorian opera company rather than imperial Rome. The hard-working actors give it their all, but the play's over-intellectual verbosity defeats their efforts, making it hard to sympathize with the emperor or his victims. Long before the end, one wishes they'd just go ahead and kill the guy -- and put him and us out of our misery.

Presented by and at the Unknown Theater,

1110 N. Seward St., L.A.

Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m. May 25-Jun. 30.

(323) 466-7781.