THE CHARACTER of Saddam Hussein is the inspiration and central figure in a new play, but the Iraqi leader's character never appears on stage.
"Saddam," a drama with comic moments by Michael Elkin having its world premiere at the Fells Point Cabaret Theatre tomorrow, examines the futility of war and, to some degree, the hopelessness of peace.
Presented under the auspices of Howard Perloff Productions, the five-character work is the company's first all-Equity show. Perloff plans to take the play, with its cast of professional New York actors, to an off-Broadway or Broadway house at the conclusion of the Baltimore run in June.
"Reportedly, this is the only play in the country centering on the Persian Gulf war," says Elkin, who, along with director Tim Weinfeld and producer Perloff, recently watched three members of the cast enact one of the more powerful scenes from the play.
"Due to the nature of the situation, I decided to make the play a surrealistic drama," Elkin explains. "It takes place in the imagination and is set in one room throughout the world."
The play also focuses on the media's role in the conflict and its influence and impact on viewers.
Perloff, a native Philadelphian, chose the Fells Point theater for his long-range theatrical plans, opening the audience participation show "Tony and Tina's Wedding" here, which ran from last June to November. "Murder on the Waterfront" followed in December and continued until April.
A veteran producer of cabaret and legitimate theater, Perloff was associate producer for the Tony Award-winning New York production of "Torch Song Trilogy" and the unsuccessful "Legs Diamond" starring Peter Allen.
Perloff says he chose Baltimore because he thought it was a good showcase for the variety of plays he wanted to do and for pre-Broadway and off-Broadway tryouts.
To that end, he says, "we have extended the stage. It is now 28 feet by 18 feet, and a new lighting system has been installed. We are making Fells Point Cabaret a full-capacity professional theater."
"'Saddam' was all [Perloff's] concept," says Elkin. "He asked me to write a script about the Persian Gulf crisis and articulate how different nations were dealing with the war. I took it from there."
In the play, an American patriot is the protagonist and there are three other males -- an Iraqi, an Israeli and a news broadcaster. The fifth character is the mediator, a female United Nations representative.
"They all have different points of view," says Elkin. "The play is seen through the eyes of the American, who experiences the war through the other characters. He has only seen the hostilities on TV and he finds out that the war is not the glorious thing Bush said it was.
"The audience never sees Saddam, but the cast talks about him and the troubles he caused. What I wanted to do was create an evolving and involving play to reflect current events," he notes. "I anticipated some changes that came true . . . the nature of the ongoing war and the hardships endured."
A professional playwright from Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, Elkin has won a number of awards, including two playwrighting fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and a Philadelphia Foundation grant. The writer's play "Fat Chance" has been produced in Los Angeles, and another, "Date of Death," has been staged in several venues in Pennsylvania.
Elkin and Perloff, who commutes here from Philadelphia, forged a working relationship when the producer read the playwright's script "Alex and Morris," which is scheduled for future presentation at the Fells Point Cabaret Theatre.
"But 'Saddam' is the show Howard feels will put his theater on the map," says Elkin. "The point of the play is -- wars break out and peace treaties are historically stopgaps. You have to deal with the human condition and that condition seems to have a penchant for war.
"Rather than dealing with these stopgaps," he adds, "maybe we should target the real root of evil within us."
Currently in previews, "Saddam" opens officially tomorrow at 8 p.m. and then will revert to the theater's regular schedule: 8 p.m. Fridays; 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. The show closes June 16.
Tickets are $18 on Fridays and Sundays and $22.50 on Saturdays. For reservations and group discounts, call the Fells Point Cabaret Theatre (723 S. Broadway) at 327-8800.
The company has discontinued its dinner theater policy but is maintaining its cabaret style. Theater patrons can dine in the adjoining Fells Point Cafe before or after the show.