AT THE HEART of C.P. Taylor's "And a Nightingale Sang. . ." is a charming two- character play. But in the clumsy production at New Arts Theater, it has all the appeal of a sodden crumpet.

Within a larger canvas that spans five years of WWII, Taylor sketches a sentimental miniature of a provincial working-class British family. The playwright adds a touch of tartness to counter the treacle, making the realities of war -- firebombing and poison gas, food rationing, marital infidelity, encroaching communism -- the stuff of domestic crisis.

Thirtyish spinster Helen Stott -- who doubles as narrator, jumping in and out of present tense -- observes her family's life during wartime. Helen gets involved with Norman, a married soldier, in an affair that must end with the war; her promiscuous sister worries her way through a loveless marriage to a drab soldier; her handwringing, hyper-religious mother confesses a crush on a parish priest; and daft grandpa totters toward senility, toting a flatulent cat into the bomb shelter.

Helen's father is called on to introduce and end each of six scenes with a period song, but the familiar tunes are blitzed beyond recognition by Bill Seely, who seems to have learned but one piano riff for the role.

Taylor endows each character with the customary English eccentricity and stiff upper lip. Unfortunately, the New Arts ensemble can't manage much beyond the eccentricity, and director Camilla David gives undue emphasis to the subordinate characters, stretching the evening to nearly three hours.

Superior performances are given by Nancy Robinette and Grover Gardner as Helen and Norman, the wartime lovers. Luckily these two have the majority of time on stage, as the other performances vary in degrees of annoyance.

Robinette, though a trifle mannered, gives a particularly intelligent and moving performance as goodhearted, awkwardly graceful Helen, and the emotions that flicker over her kind, careworn features say more than so many pages of the script. By play's end, it's clear that Robinette's Helen will no longer settle for a life of quiet desperation.