T.S. Eliot's "The Confidential Clerk" is a talky and peculiar piece of dramaturgy, but the Washington Stage Guild production does keep your attention. Under Bill Largess's direction, the actors hop onto the thing as if it were Shaw and keep it trotting, if not exactly frisking, around the stage.
The clerk of the title is Colby Simpkins (Jason Gilbert), a second-rate organist who has moved into the business world by taking a position with the financier who sired him out of wedlock 25 years ago. This tycoon, Sir Claude Mulhammer (John Dow), is a decent sort. He wants to do the best by his son and hopes to convince his eccentric wife, Lady Elisabeth (Barbara Rappaport), that the lad is her illegitimate child, whom she had to give up in her youth, so paving the way for adoption.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Mulhammer already has an illegitimate daughter, Lucasta (Tricia McCauley), that Lady Elisabeth becomes convinced that Colby is her long-lost son, and that there is another foundling rolling around the place, one B. Kaghan (Brian McMonagle), who is planning to marry Lucasta. Colby and Lucasta form an instant friendship, and for a few moments it looks as if Eliot is going down the Shavian path about illegitimacy possibly leading to incest. But no. Colby just helps Lucasta to be happy with herself even though she's not of the nobility. His own situation is more confusing--it turns out there is some question as to exactly whose little romantic mistake he was.
Not only is the plot stuffed with three secret illegitimate births, there are so many convenient offstage deaths--in the war or by accident--that if "The Confidential Clerk" were a modern play, you'd expect a serial killer to turn up in Act 3. Nothing of the sort, of course: Eliot is only sending up the conventions of melodrama. He does it awfully ponderously, though, and at times, as the story lurches from one amazing coincidence to another, the play is inadvertently as well as deliberately comic.
Gilbert's shy, good-hearted Colby gives the play a much-needed center--everyone else spins blithely around him, pursuing his own interests. Matters are finally resolved when Colby's original foster mother, Mrs. Guzzard (Laura Giannarelli), comes to Sir Claude's office to answer some questions.
Parentage doesn't really matter, the play concludes, only love does. We are all God's children, after all. Our duty is to be content as He has made us and not wish to be something more or other than we are. And the mysterious way in which He moves is sometimes indistinguishable from a pie in our faces. Right off the top of my head, I can't think of another Christian farce like this, or even not like this. The Stage Guild has certainly lit up a shadowy corner of theatrical history.
The Confidential Clerk, by T.S. Eliot. Directed by Bill Largess. Set, David C. Ghatan; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, William Pucilowsky; sound, Brian D. Keating. With Vincent Clark. At the Washington Stage Guild, performing at the Source Theatre, through Nov. 14. Call 202-529-2084.
CAPTION: Tricia McCauley and Jason Gilbert, front, and Barbara Rappaport and John Dow in T.S. Eliot's "The Confidential Clerk," at Washington Stage Guild.