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Review

Dynamic cast propels tale of two step-siblings across three decades

As it turns out, “The Two Kids That Blow ... Up” at the Lounge Theatre isn’t nearly as explosive as its expletive-laden title might suggest.

Tracing three decades in the complicated relationship between two Asian American urbanites struggling to find their place in the world, Carla Ching’s play impresses most with its delicacy of feeling. The result is a consistently engaging, deftly staged debut from the L.A. theater collective Artists at Play.

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As Diana and Max, the troubled step-siblings referenced in the title, Julia Cho and Nelson Lee skillfully chart their characters’ lives from childhood through middle age.

We first see them at age 38 in an awkward barroom reunion following years of estrangement, followed by a flashback to their early encounter as 9-year-olds playing in the snow while her father and his mother are having sex — an affair that eventually leads to the parents’ marriage and the union of their families.

In nonlinear sequence, subsequent scenes leapfrog between turning points in the characters’ teens, 20s and 30s before cycling back to the opening exchange as they contemplate the mess their lives have turned out to be. The combustible chemistry between rebellious artist Diana and compliant Max is touching in its vulnerability — the only stuff these kids manage to blow up are their opportunities for happiness.

The fractured chronology adds more complexity than Ching’s narrative warrants, though director Jeremy Lelliott helpfully includes voice-overs announcing the characters’ precise age at the start of each scene, and quickly exchanged costumes by Emily Brown-Kucera and Rachel Stivers add a visual assist.

Nevertheless, the heavy lifting falls to the skillful versatility with which Cho and Lee pivot into different stages of life. With absolute conviction, they evoke the characters’ deep-rooted caring and unwavering commitment to being truthful with each other no matter what the cost.

Lee has landed a film gig, and the company’s decision to end the run this week, earlier than planned, is unfortunate but understandable. There’s no plug-and-play substitution for a cast dynamic with emotional bonds this palpable.

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“The Two Kids That Blow … Up,” the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $20-$32. On the web. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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