The late Christopher Bean — a penniless, tubercular, alcoholic painter — died 10 years back, leaving behind some unwanted and unappreciated canvases. Which, now that he has been suddenly hailed as one of the great masters of all time, are of inestimable value. A similar if not so extravagant claim can be made for Sidney Howard’s “The Late Christopher Bean,” which hasn’t had a major New York production since it closed in early 1933. This comedy of manners — ill manners — paints greed, pretension and small-town narrowness in bright, broad brush strokes.
The indigent Bean had been taken in by a kindly-if-crusty village doctor (James Murtaugh) in small-town New England. Kindly, that is, until two sharpster art experts from New York arrive to swindle him out of any Bean canvases remaining on the premises. But the doctor and his shrewish wife (Cynthia Darlow) used the unfathomable masterpieces to plug holes in the chicken coop.
Much of the humor comes from the transformation of the family as dollar signs flash before their eyes. At the play’s center is Abby (Mary Bacon), longtime housekeeper and — as it turns out — muse to the late Bean. Also on hand are a talented young painter, a couple of daughters, and an effete but honest art critic. The action devolves into a riotous tussle over canvases, literally so.
A forgotten member of the Eugene O’Neill-Robert Sherwood-Maxwell Anderson set of American playwrights, Howard was the first person to win both the Pulitzer (for “They Knew What They Wanted”) and the Oscar (for “Gone With the Wind”). The latter was the first Oscar awarded posthumously; the 48-year-old gentleman farmer was crushed by a tractor in a freak accident in 1939.
Much of the brightness of this production comes from the Yankee doctor, whose character is described as a gargoyle and who, when overcome with greed, jerks about like a puppet on hopelessly tangled strings. Murtaugh (a memorably dour McComber in the 1998 Lincoln Center Theater revival of O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!”) also supplies an inspired bit of mime in the final scene when he tabulates the spoils of swindling like a deranged abacus.
Darlow contributes numerous laughs as a harridan who goes in for occasional-but-inauthentic lunges at civility; this pair deserves each other, and the audience is the beneficiary.
Bacon does an admirable job as the woman at the center of the affair, but she is at something of a disadvantage. Howard wrote the play as a vehicle for Pauline Lord, star of “They Knew What They Wanted” and a living legend for her 1921 performance as O’Neill’s “Anna Christie.” Abby has also been played by Marie Dressler, Edith Evans and Lillian Gish. That’s not to say you need a star in the role, but Howard clearly intended us to focus on the housemaid from the earliest scenes, which we don’t do with Bacon.
The Actors Company Theater, dedicated to neglected and rarely performed plays, switched from readings to full productions three seasons ago. This “Christopher Bean,” effectively directed by Jenn Thompson, demonstrates that there are indeed overlooked treasures on the old-play shelf. And TACT does it without stars, name directors or a big budget backed by a robust donor and subscriber base.
In the company’s hands, the play proves intelligent, well crafted and laugh-out-loud funny.