A middle-aged brother and sister trade memories while bartering for family heirlooms. Sound familiar? It is, in a general sort of a way, which is the boon and the bane of Cherylene Lee's new play, "Arthur and Leila," at East West Players.
The best thing that can be said about this bittersweet piece, focused on a mild sibling rivalry, is that the writing is graceful and that the actors--Nancy Kwan as Leila, Dana Lee as Arthur--fulfill its demands gracefully. The worst thing that can be said is that Lee's play opts for the easy road and never adequately fills in the blanks that might flesh out this brother and his very different sister.
So while author Lee's intentions are strictly honorable and her talent palpable, "Arthur and Leila" never rises out of the realm of too many like-minded pieces limited by the predictability of the two-character formula.
In brief, "Arthur and Leila" is a series of visits with a rather unlikely pair: the well-heeled, primly attractive Leila, always dressed to the nines (Ken Takemoto's costume design achieves this by having Kwan wear a parade of silky, upscale tops with black slacks), and her down-and-out brother Arthur, an unrepentant alcoholic who just grows messier and more derelict as the play moves on. (Aside from the somewhat amateurish white dusting of his dark hair, the youngish Dana Lee finds slovenliness more through body language than any attempt at real age.)
The gimmick here is that Leila has been surreptitiously contributing to brother Arthur's support (and delinquency) by purchasing his share of the family memorabilia with large sums of cold cash. Some might call this plain old subsidy, since Arthur's supply has dwindled and his collection of bottom-drawer trinkets can lay claim only to the faintest sentimental value--if that.
While this ritualized exchange has its momentary charms, repetition soon exhausts them. Most of the evening's trade negotiations lap over into what is an increasingly negotiated emotional tie.
Unfortunately, its dynamics, coupled with Karen Murayama's sedate direction, lack enough energy or new twists to hold our attention even for 90 minutes.
Too bad, because at the heart of "Arthur and Leila" lies an uncommon notion whose potential remains largely unexplored and therefore unrealized. Aside from a failure to examine complex issues of morality in this family equation, other questions come up: What splintered this brother and sister so radically, and why? What are the lives they lead when they're apart? Who are they anyway?
Not having that information makes it difficult to care about "Arthur and Leila" and robs the play of its own untapped riches.
* "Arthur and Leila," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Sundays, 2 p.m. Beginning Jan. 7: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 23. $20; (213) 660-0366. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.