Just in time for graduation: a nasty play about the worthlessness of higher education.

516 (five sixteen) (the title refers to the number of a college course in Media Studies), by Katharine Clark Gray, is a premiere production by Philadelphia Theatre Workshop under the direction of Bill Felty. Featuring three unpleasant characters, Gray begins in vicious cynicism, but lacking the courage of her initial meanness, she descends to muddled melodrama by the end of Act 3.

Both Emilie Krause and Kevin Meehan turn in strong performances. Krause plays Annalee, who dropped out of school for lack of funds - and although it's mentioned that she's plenty smart enough to navigate the financial-aid bureaucracy, this is ignored, thus allowing her to retain her victim-of-the-system status. Because she's brilliant and articulate, she makes a living writing papers for students as a professional plagiarist.

Meehan plays an arrogant graduate student named Sigurd who hires Annalee to write his papers while he works on his thesis. Their relationship, fed by their debates about media studies (this involves the analysis and deconstruction of lots of movies, or, if you want to be a media-studies snob, "films"), quickly moves on to kinky "dirty sex."

The professor who teaches 516, Martie (why do all these characters have such odd names?) is played by Ann Gundersheimer with stiffness and schmaltziness.

Eventually we'll see that everyone has exploited everyone else, and that the betrayals are compounded by the hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement of three very clever people who seem to have no real ethical standards at all.

Since the characters speak mostly in essay titles and bullet points or else give guilt-trippy commencement addresses, there isn't much human dialogue other than boy/girl drivel. If you know Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, you know the play Gray wanted to write but didn't or couldn't, although she did borrow his central idea. This unacknowledged debt may illustrate something about the general moral bankruptcy that is 516's theme.

516 (five sixteen)

Philadelphia Theatre Workshop at Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, 9th & Walnut Streets. Through June 6. Tickets $18-20. Information: www. philadelphiatheatreworkshop.orgEndText