James Whitmore and Audra Lindley are engaging performers and William Gibson is a playwright of intelligence and sensitivity. So it is all the more grieving to note that "Handy Dandy," the play that unites the three of them, is a tedious affair.

At Ford's Theatre for a three-week run, this two-character work, a comedy with serious overtones, charts the relationship between a crusty law-and-order judge and the activist nun who is brought before him for trespassing. Actually, it's not the first time she's been arrested for protesting on the grounds of a plant making nuclear weaponry and the judge, his patience sorely tested, has already formed an opinion of her as "some screwball that God sends me for my sins."

For her part, she views him as "a moth-eaten lion" so obsessed by the niggling letter of the law that he misses the larger moral issues staring him in the face. She doesn't much approve of his womanizing or his $40,000 Mercedes, either.

"You want to save humanity. It doesn't know you exist," he scoffs. "But I know it exists," she retorts, intimidated neither by his scowl nor his judicial robes. In short, understanding does not appear to be in the offing, especially since she is resolved to continue her protests and he is equally resolved to send her to the clink if she does.

For all their obvious differences, however, Gibson's play wants to glory in their coming together. Having set up two seemingly incompatible positions and temperaments, he intends to show us how these headstrong creatures cede bits of their precious truth, change despite themselves and even extend to one another solace in the 20th-century storm. If there is meant to be comedy in the clash of ideas, under the disputatious surface "Handy Dandy" is a would-be love story.

I say would-be because the emotional underpinnings that make Gibson's "Two for the Seesaw" such a potent two-character drama are all but undetectable this time. The playwright makes it perfectly clear what separates his characters, but he is less adroit at indicating what brings them together. Granted, he is painting an odd couple. But these two are so odd, so mismatched, so combative that we can't imagine them ever bridging the gulf.

Yet this nun does more than just prick this judge's conscience. After handing her 30 days in the detention center, he feels compelled to visit her. Then, finding her weak from fasting and half-mad from the bedlam, he rescinds her sentence and takes her home. I fear you will have trouble believing this as a natural order of dramatic events.

We do learn -- later rather than earlier -- that each character has a rocky past. The judge's mother committed suicide; and he is divorced from an alcoholic wife and estranged from his 26-year-old son. The nun had three husbands (and two abortions) before finding the faith. This presumably indicates the presence of emotional wounds, which might make one character receptive to the other. But there's a curious tit-for-tat quality to the play, as if Gibson were constantly -- and consciously -- balancing the scales.

She deals with her hurt by throwing herself into her kooky activism (although frankly she's not that kooky). He hides his hurt behind a facade of staunch conservatism. The law is a bulwark for him, an impediment for her. He makes no bones about wanting to get through life with a minimum of pain. The world is stark-raving bonkers; a reasonable man does his job and leaves it at that. For her, pain is implicit in living and "simply doing one's job leaves out the oldest question in the world . . . 'Am I my brother's keeper?' " So it goes. The rhythms of thrust and parry govern the play from beginning to end, like a metronome, obscuring the characters' heartbeats.

Whitmore and Lindley, skilled performers as they are, can't bring this relationship to life, although they both project a briskness that helps counteract the heaviness of the writing. He makes the judge a likable curmudgeon, whose exasperated bark is worse than his bite. And Lindley is careful to let the nun's good sense shine through her flakiness. But lines like "You wouldn't know the Holy Ghost if it bit you in the behind" resist her best efforts.

Director Arthur Storch provides no help. He hasn't even established consistent ground rules. Certain props are mimed, certain are real. (By my reckoning, Bedelia, the nun's aged dog and one of the invisible props, gets rudely stepped on.) The voices of some -- but not all -- of the secondary characters are heard on tape. As for the set -- two granite blocks on which rest two massive marbled pillars -- it functions as a symbolic backdrop at best. The real locales -- a Cape Cod beach, the courtroom, the detention center -- are suggested by a random chair and a change in the lighting.

The makeshift production -- handy for touring, perhaps, but far from dandy -- merely reinforces the sad notion that Gibson's questing play is still searching for its proper shape.

Handy Dandy, by William Gibson. Directed by Arthur Storch; sets, Victor A. Becker; costumes, Maria Marrero; lighting, Judy Rasmuson. With James Whitmore and Audra Lindley. At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 13.