It is one thing to reproduce, with acutely graphic details, a state of human misery on the stage. It is another and far more difficult accomplishment to present a dire situation in a way that contributes to a deep understanding of those involved. Catherine Hayes's ''Skirmishes,'' a short British drama being given its American premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club, is a case in point.
Through their acrimony and recriminations, sisters Jean and Rita (Suzanne Bertish and Fran Brill) rehearse and reconstruct family conflicts from the past. But Miss Hayes fails to illuminate that past - or the human condition generally - to a degree that compensates for the depressing effects of spending 75 minutes or so in the company of these contentious siblings.
The scene of their conversations is the bedroom occupied by their dying mother in the house that Jean stands to inherit from the elderly widow. Though married, Jean has remained at home to nurse the ailing parent. Now her husband is on the verge of leaving her. The maternally preoccupied Rita defied her mother's wishes by marrying a divorced man. Though returning home infrequently and reluctantly, she has remained the old woman's favorite.
Miss Bertish gives an intense but tempered performance as the emotionally and physically drained Jean, whose scruffy attire is her armor and whose caustic tongue has become a ready defensive weapon. In the contrasting role of the complacent, self-centered Rita, Miss Brill depicts the kind of visiting relative whose chief contribution to any situation is unsolicited advice. Except for some shared intimacies and a momentary embrace, the sisters remain unreconciled. Hope Cameron's bedridden mother, for the most part silent, immobile, and oblivious, remains nevertheless a dominant center-stage presence.
A Manhattan Theater Club press release describes the new entry as a ''savage yet shockingly funny war between two sisters.'' At the preview I attended, the audience may have been shocked, but it found almost nothing funny about the dreary skirmishes. The well-acted production was staged by Sharon Ott, with scenery by Kate Edmunds, costumes by Susan Hilferty, and lighting by Dennis Parichy.