The ostensible subject of ''Tatjana in Color'', an adventurous historical drama by Julia Jordan, is the inner life of adolescent girls. Set in 1912 in Neulengbach, a small Austrian town 20 miles from Vienna, it is based on an episode in the life of the artist Egon Schiele, who was jailed for obscenity for using an under-age girl as a nude model.
Ms. Jordan's play, written in 1997 and being presented for the first time in New York by the Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street, depicts the circumstances of Schiele's arrest and his subsequent release when suspicions he had raped the girl were unproved.
But Schiele, then a 22-year-old iconoclast and libertine and played by Glenn Fitzgerald with appropriately pretentious self-regard, is actually a minor character in the play.
Instead, the busy Ms. Jordan, who frequently writes about teenagers and siblings and is having four plays produced Off Broadway this season, is mainly interested in the girl, Tatjana Georgette Anna Von Mossig. She is portrayed here by Kate Wetherhead as a spirited and romantic 12-year-old who is both inspired by Schiele's tormented erotic paintings and fascinated by his life, especially his love affair with a self-possessed older woman known as Wally (Rebecca Wisocky).
The other important character is Tatjana's younger sister, 10-year-old Antonia (Nicole Lowrance), whose own contented existence is thoroughly upset by Tatjana's obsession with her new friends. This is an alluring, complex and thoughtful setup, though in the end it seems a little elaborate for the purpose it serves, which is mainly to create an arena for the exploration of a sisterly dynamic that feels more universal than particular.
The historical context is diverting, and the play's conclusion is effectively bittersweet, but the story is a distinctly secondary element here. It's odd, but Schiele is a far less integral figure than Wally, whose role-model status for Tatjana plays a crucial part in the young girl's evolving character.
Ms. Jordan's main accomplishment is a thorough portrait of the urgencies and passionate confusions of adolescence, distaff division. In Tatjana we are given the sexual stirrings, the first flashes of egocentrism, the impatience of youth, the eagerness to flaunt new knowledge, the sudden cognizance of an alternative to life within the family and the powerful allure of rebellion. In Antonia we see the girl who is not quite tall enough to glimpse adulthood and who feels betrayed and flummoxed by her sister's new interests.
Both characters are precocious, both are written with intelligence and poignance, and as directed with bravado by Will Pomerantz in an expansive but low-ceilinged basement space, both are free to express the racing pulses and natural perturbation of smart, jittery children. There's a lot of running and squirming.

They are, however, children, with all the limitations of 10-year-old and 12-year-old characters. Their long arguments with each other tend to shrillness and the deployment of adolescent (i.e., uninteresting) logic. Some of this could be solved by pruning; a couple of schoolroom scenes, with the girls fencing verbally with their pompous schoolmaster (Brad Bellamy), are considerably less amusing and informative than they are intended to be. And not unlike precocious children, Mr. Pomerantz, who is mostly quite resourceful in his direction, occasionally makes more clamor than he needs to. (The percussive piano-and-string music that accompanies several wordless interludes, for example, could be toned down considerably.)
But mostly the problem is more generically stubborn than that. And though Ms. Wetherhead and Ms. Lowrance are young actresses with a clear affinity for Ms. Jordan's material and an obvious commitment to the underexplored psychological territory of ''Tatjana in Color,'' even the convincing costumes by Devon Painter don't help them avoid the pitfalls that seem always to trip up adult performers playing a fraction of their ages. After a while, the affectation of high-pitched voices, whiny impatience and rubbery, jumping-bean physicality begins, like an overextended acting exercise, to feel pointless and foolish.
It's no surprise that the finest scenes in the play -- the best written, the best performed, the most charged with genuine emotion -- are those between Tatjana and Wally. The dynamic between an older woman, frustrated because her lover will not marry her, and the young girl who tempts and fascinates him is full of delicious tension. And Ms. Wisocky, a lithe and athletic woman with a wild mane of hair and a strikingly chiseled profile, is wonderful as a woman who is both confident muse and uncertain mistress to Schiele, both teacher and fearful, jealous rival to Tatjana.
In the performance of the role, as in the writing of it, the true interests of the playwright emerge. Ms. Jordan, who, like Wally, is in her 30's, seems to be looking boldly -- and admirably -- at herself past and present. The real subject of the play is not the uncertainty of young girls, but how that uncertainty matures.

TATJANA IN COLOR By Julia Jordan; directed by Will Pomerantz; producer, Allan Buchman; sets by Troy Hourie; lighting by Joel Moritz; costumes by Devon Painter; sound by Mr. Pomerantz; production manager, David Szlasa; company manager, David Friedman; stage manager, Cat Domiano.

Presented by the Culture Project. At 45 Bleecker Street Theater, East Village. WITH: Kate Wetherhead (Tatjana Von Mossig), Nicole Lowrance (Antonia Von Mossig), Glenn Fitzgerald (Egon Schiele), Rebecca Wisocky (Wally Neuzil) and Brad Bellamy (Von Mossig/Schoolteacher/Judge).

By Bruce Weber, The New York Times, November 4, 2003, Tuesday