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Less Than Skillful

Stages struggles to save a weak import from England

The skills in Keyboard Skills belong almost entirely to the actors and director of Stages Repertory Theatre. This insignificant comedy of political manners by Lesley Bruce -- which, for reasons I couldn't determine, was a 1994 winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded annually to outstanding women playwrights -- benefits enormously from the production Stages gives it. Granted, this text by an English author could simply have lost something crossing the Atlantic, but in any case, Skills largely neglects its satiric dictum: "Words are our most precious resource."

Bearing the oldest of ploys -- the tawdry scandal -- Skills goes on and on about nothing, especially in the first of its two acts. The play wants to be a biting thriller about what happens when Bernard Snowden, a minister in Parliament, rushes home late one night fraught with apprehension yet hesitant to tell his wife (and former secretary) Caroline what's wrong. But the scenes between them are annoyingly, repetitively toothless. "What's happened," Bernard says in a typical response to his wife's questioning, "is that something that should not have happened has happened. What's further happened is that I have spent all evening and most of the night trying to ensure that the decent and upright members of the British press, who only ever print what they sincerely and genuinely believe in their hearts to fall within the sphere of public interest, don't get to hear that this thing which should not have happened has, in fact, happened. Or failing that, that they don't connect it with me."

This doublespeak quickly loses whatever comic punch it starts with. What's more, since it's revealed that Caroline has stood by her husband in other intrigues, his evasiveness appears unjustified. Regardless, much of Act One has Caroline trying to drag facts out of Bernard: he was at the office, he wasn't; he stopped at a pub, he didn't; he's having an affair, he's not; he's lost his briefcase of sensitive papers, he hasn't; the police were helpful, they weren't; he has a plan, he doesn't; he'll answer callers, he won't.

In Act Two, Caroline finally learns that what Bernard's involved in "isn't Watergate, it's Chappaquiddick." Distraught, she attempts a tryst with Bernard's ambitious underling, a man who'll do anything to advance his own career. One of the many problems with this subplot is that though Bernard walks in on the pair, playwright Bruce doesn't have the characters deal with the incident -- or even decide not to deal with it. Much of Act Two can be encapsulated in an exchange between husband and wife. "I have the full picture?" Caroline asks. "Part of the full picture," Bernard replies.

Interspersed throughout the play are flashbacks to the pair as a younger couple. He's an idealist, carrying a seed of self-absorption that will later bloom. She's an inefficient secretary who, setting her sights on him, suggests, "I'm wonderful under pressure." Though apparently meant as imaginative counterpoints, the contrast of the earlier selves offers few surprises.

In a different series of flashbacks, a Miss Gainsborough, Caroline's teacher in secretarial school, tells her unseen charges that "it will be your job to become indispensable" by assuming "the appearance of excellence." Gainsborough's absurdly wicked commentaries -- "Efficient, deferential, with just the merest smear, girls, of an insinuation of power," she advises on telephone etiquette; "I want to hear how your document will look," she drills them in their keyboard skills -- almost redeem the play. But the implications behind them -- that Caroline may have to reassess basing her life on making Bernard seem infallible no matter what; that Bernard only has himself to blame because of his "weakness for secretaries"; that the Miss Gainsboroughs of the world might have been subverting patriarchy in the guise of attending to it -- are underdeveloped.

Despite some wobbly British accents, the well-realized performances at Stages nearly compensate for Keyboard Skills written weakness. Michael LaGue fills Bernard with an exasperated angst that borders on metaphysical terror; an amusing bundle of nerves, he's nearly childlike in suggesting that his politician's solipsism is dependent upon Caroline's support. With her handsome good looks, Connie Cooper reflects Caroline's regal bearing. By seeming sincerely and fundamentally ill-at-ease, Cooper finds a way to make Caroline's strained patience endearing.

Randal Kent Doerner, who plays two parts, is equally adept at creating the young Bernard, a wannabe stuffed shirt, and Compton-Miller, the subordinate who dallies with Caroline and who doesn't take it personally that everybody dislikes him. As the young Caroline, Celia Montgomery is even better: she starts out alluring and ends up wifely, transforming before our eyes. Montgomery is breathtaking in her supreme confidence. In her own way, so is Marjorie Carroll as Miss Gainsborough; the sly old biddy's poofy pronouncements, filled with absolute conviction, very nearly steal the show.

With a few exceptions -- the first act could be more tense, the second act less so -- director Beth Sanford matches her actors' precision. When the doorbell rings, Caroline huffily brushes her hair before going downstairs to greet what she thinks is the press. Compton-Miller casually picks up a hand mirror to check on his nose hair. And in a stunningly effective move during the denouement, young Caroline walks in between Bernard and Caroline, getting earrings here, picking up a pocketbook there -- intruding one reality upon another.

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