By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated May 21, 2003 03:58 PM

Now that “Dawson’s Creek” is no more, its leading man James Van Der Beek has opened in playwright Lanford Wilson’s new Off-Broadway drama, “Rain Dance,” a four-character ensemble piece set in a New Mexico cantina in 1945, at the time of the development of the atomic bomb.

The former Dawson Leery, 26, plays what New York Times critic Ben Brantley describes as “a boyish 27-year-old American scientist” named Hank.

That was about the kindest thing Brantley had to say about the actor, though most of the other reviews for his performance were mixed to fairly positive. (The Times is still widely considered the most influential when it comes to theater coverage.)

While admitting that the actor is one good-looking guy, Brantley nevertheless complains that the play “suffers from a critically miscast central performance by James Van Der Beek … the appealingly clean-cut star of the prime-time soap ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ (who) exudes a steadfast earnestness that doesn’t begin to encompass the shaded transitions Hank must register for ‘Rain Dance’ to be effective.”

Echoing the “clean-cut” adjective, Newsday critic Linda Winer calls Hank “the young desert-loving genius from the Bronx, played with endearing boyishness by James Van Der Beek,” while Associated Press critic Michael Kuchwara writes that the actor plays the role “with an earnest anxiety that you think would get on the nerves of the others who drift into the cantina.”

Daily News critic Robert Dominguez, who found the play itself to be wordy and flat, writes, “The performances are good, with Van Der Beek — an accomplished stage actor though he’s best known for his starring role on TV’s ‘Dawson’s Creek’ — engaging as the anxious, confused Hank.”

What little action there is in the 90-minute play revolves around Hank, who is being torn apart by the realization of what the bomb will ultimately accomplish. That means the weight of the enterprise falls on Van Der Beek’s shoulders. “I come to the most peaceful place on earth, only to turn it outside out,” Hank says.

“Rain Dance” — which costars Randolph Mantooth, best remembered as the character John Gage on TV’s “Emergency!” — runs though June 29.