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Like most bad plays, Josƒ Rivera's "Cloud Tectonics" is not totally without merits. It boasts incredible visuals and a touching central performance by John Ortiz. In fact, if often looks good enough that the sheer inanity of the play, now at Playwrights Horizons, isn't always noticeable. Before long, though, the banalities inevitably crash through.

Time is the prevalent metaphor here, creating links and barriers between Celestina (Camilia Sanes), an extremely pregnant woman with some odd habits, and Anibel (Ortiz), the Good Samaritan who picks her up during an epic Los Angeles thunderstorm. Anibel's brother Nestor (Javi Mulero) also shows up for a few key scenes, but most of the time is devoted to Celestina and Anibel.

Aside from an occasional well-turned phrase or an effective image of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (a theme Rivera also touched on in "Marisol"), the story consists of clichƒs and florid ramblings. And its "surprise" revelations are never developed enough to become more than a device.

When he isn't being over-directed by Tina Landau, Ortiz brings a much-needed sense of vitality to each of his scenes. His character changes from moment to moment, not just scene to scene. Mulero also manages some compelling moments; Sanes simply seems overwhelmed by the text.

The text may be tough on the ears and mind, but the play's look is undeniably powerful. Riccardo Hernandez's sets, along with Mark Bennet and J.R. Conklin's sound design, and especially Frances Aronson's lighting, create a mood that frightens and lulls, establishing a scene while effortlessly creating the fairy-tale tone that eludes Rivera. (A simple set change is used to devasting effect to show one character's disillusionment.)

As usual, Landau seems more comfortable with tableaux than with human emotions. She repeatedly sets a mood like few other directors, then manipulates the actors in a way that negates everything she has done thus far.

Rivera is often trying to say something new, and Playwrights Horizons deserves credit for allowing an ambitious young writer to fail at this level. The only shame is that audiences have to witness such a failure.

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC, Dec. 12-J

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