In 1970 Lanford Wilson wrote a powerful play about the devastating ease with which human beings can destroy themselves and one another. The American Century Theater is doing a notable production of that play, "Serenading Louie," emphasizing its insight into the frailty of marriage and the futility of living in the past.

Against a backdrop of a country that was exploding with new cultural and sexual freedoms, Wilson's play is set in a Chicago suburb in the 1970s. The characters include two couples in their 30s: Carl (Hans Dettmar) and Mary (Vanessa Bradchulis); Alex (Theodore M. Snead) and Gabby (Robin Covington).

Alex is a successful lawyer heading toward a fine career in politics. Carl is a wealthy property developer. But both are unfulfilled and unhappy with their professional and personal lives. Their wives are even more miserable. Gabby is indecisive and so nervous she can barely finish a sentence when she's around her husband. Mary is overpowering and insulting to her husband, savagely ignoring him and her daughter in an effort to fill her empty days.

If you go 'Serenading Louie' Where: The American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 21 Info: $29 to $32; 703-998-4555;

In the hands of a lesser playwright, this material would have turned trite, but Wilson manages to infuse the play with enough philosophy and poetry to keep it from slipping into soap opera territory. As each character recoils further from the others, Wilson doesn't talk about, but demonstrates, their extraordinary alienation from one another. As the play progresses, Wilson intensifies the loneliness and the differences among the characters. At the start of the play, Carl and Gabby appear to be authentic human beings, trying to make good on their marriage vows, while Mary and Alex are shown to be emptier and emptier. By the end of the play, only Gabby stumbles her way into a more valid persona.

The action of "Serenading Louie" takes place first in Carl and Mary's home, then in Gabby and Alex's home, then fluctuates back and forth. Deborah Wheatley's set, showing a typical period suburban living room, represents both couples' neighboring homes. Andrew Griffin's sensitive lighting creates the difference between one home and the other. Steven Scott Mazzola directs "Serenading Louie" well, keeping the play as credible now as it was in 1970.

Dettmar is convincing as the ex-football star who has made his millions and lost his desire for the next challenge in life. Snead is taking as Alex, ready to move on in his professional life but unable to face the fact that he has utterly alienated his wife. Bradchulis is powerful as the bossy, self-assured Mary, and Covington is heartbreaking as Gabby, who turns herself inside out to make her egotistical husband happy.

Since 1970, a lot has been written about failed marriages, adultery and postmarital misery, but much of it simply rails at the participants and survivors, blaming individuals for the mess society is in.

What Wilson created in "Serenading Louie," on the other hand, is not a vicious attack on human beings, but a serious questioning of how so many people wind up on the rocks: He asks if mankind has gotten too civilized to live or if some men -- like Alex -- simply cannot commit to a private life. His "Serenading Louie" is a perceptive, lyrical tribute to the solitary individuals who find themselves trapped in a suburban tragedy.