IN THE FIRST few minutes of "Handy Dandy," an arid little comedy that opens the season at Ford's Theater, well-meaning William Gibson threatens to take on the Big Issues -- nuclear proliferation, the laws of men vs. the laws of God, the utility or futility of individual effort.
But Gibson only nominally addresses these matters without following them up, leaving us with an unfinished, unfocused two-hour trifle that wastes the talents of James Whitmore and Audra Lindley -- and our time.
Gibson, author of "The Miracle Worker," hastily sets up an implausible sitcom scenario: Judge Henry Pulaski, a Norman Mailer-ish (but lovable) letter-of-the-law type, is handling the case of Molly Egan, a dotty (but even more lovable) activist nun, repeatedly arrested for demonstrating at nuclear arms facilities near Boston.
Pulaski, who just wants to get through life and have a little fun, sentences the antinuke nun to a month in a "Snake Pit"-style prison. As he visits her there, he inevitably comes to love her and understand her brother's keeper causes, a change of heart Gibson indicates by having Pulaski quote the Bible back at her.
It's hard to tell just what Gibson is getting at here, as he compounds his lack of focus with tedious legalese and Scripture-spouting. His two characters indulge in disconnected prattle, dropping DOA lines such as Egan's "Sometimes I think the human race is an old dog going blind at the edge of the stairs." Or exchanges like this: "Oh Henry, this world hurts." "Well, maybe we'll blow it up."
Almost as an afterthought, Gibson has his characters fill us in on their tragic backgrounds, in a most perfunctory and dispassionate manner.
It's difficult to work up much concern for these characters as written. And in Arthur Storch's static staging, these two engaging actors don't seem all that interested, either. Whitmore walks through his part, hiding beneath the awesome awning of his eyebrows. Lindley seems distracted, as if she's somewhere else -- or wishes she were. When Lindley is called on to say "I want to change the world," she couldn't sound more bored.