Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., through Apr. 7, 922-8900.

"A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to the people who witness them, and very simple to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles.''"

"Even when they are frauds, do you mean?''"

"Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.''"

No, this dialogue isn't from Michael Hollinger's new play, Incorruptible, receiving it's premier production at the Arden (in a co-production with Pittsburgh's City Stage). It's from Bernard's Shaw's Saint Joan, when the Archbishop of Rheims explains how a simple parlor trick can nevertheless miraculously inspire faith -- the belief in things unseen.

The passage might as well be from Incorruptible, though, for Hollinger's play is very much about the same phenomenon, and quotes or paraphrases virtually the same biblical passages as Shaw's historical pageant.

In the last five minutes of the play (Incorruptible, that is), characters miraculously change, the worm turns, love triumphs, the thematic material coalesces, and you can see that there really is a play here.

Not so for the first two hours, though, when Incorruptible is little more than a labored farce about a down-on-its-luck 13th-century French monastery, and its get-rich-quick scheme to convert the bones of the parishioners buried in its churchyard into holy relics of the saints for sale by mail-order to the monasteries and cathedrals of Europe.

All the elements are here for a wonderfully grotesque and delightfully tasteless black comedy: dead Jews in sacks, a sexy little chickie smuggled into the monastery (for the temporary relief of a reluctantly-chaste monk), only to be confused with a corpse. It's almost (well, almost) tasteless and unsettling enough to have been written by Joe Orton. And the full spectrum of oddball characters are all here: a goofy con man who could easily played by, say, Peter Pryor; a flustered if principled abbot who would be a natural fit for, say, Douglas Wing; a crazy old peasant lady who might well be played by Barbara Winters-Pinto; a short-tempered opportunistic monk whom Tim Moyers could play with his hands tied behind his back; and a sassy-little-sexpot role that Juliette Dunn could add to her lengthening resume of sassy-little-sexpot roles.

The problem is that these characters are played by Pryor, Wing, Winters-Pinto, Moyers, and Dunn, who ably trot out their characteristic schtick without flexing their histrionic muscles or betraying very much emotional depth. Scott Greer fares slightly better as a monk with a romantic streak, but even he isn't pushed anywhere near his potential. Only Pittsburgh-based actor David Doepken fares any better, in a supporting big-lug character role (but perhaps it only seems this way because I haven't seen his work before).

Terrence J. Nolen keeps everything taxiing along at the same, even, sitcom pace, so the comedy never picks up enough speed to take off and fly. The farce does finally get rolling toward the end of the second act, when an unspeakably unfunny new character crashes onto the stage.

Once that excruciating episode is over, the play miraculously tries to do the work it distracted itself from doing for two hours. The trumpet, finally, sounds; the dead are raised, incorruptible; and, as it should be by the final curtain of a play, everyone is changed.

But by that point it no longer matters. As Shaw's Archbishop might say: Miracles are easy; comedy is hard.

-- Cary M. Mazer