David Mamet announced his interest in 20th century British “well-made plays” — penned before those angry young men began stomping around — with his 1999 film “The Winslow Boy.” That interest resurfaces in the playwright’s new adaptation for A.C.T. of Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Voysey Inheritance.” We’re assured this work about dirty moneymaking among the respectable classes has been much trimmed by Mamet from its original 1905 text, and its themes could scarcely be more relevant to our own corporate skullduggery-driven epoch. Nonetheless, the smooth but dullish evening couldn’t be further from the kind of live-wire theatrical experience one expects from Mamet.
Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was an actor, director, producer, critic and playwright whose championing of a modern British theater placed him among the medium’s most important figures a century ago. But his reputation evaporated as he moved to Paris, then North America, and he lost public favor by leaving his first wife, a popular actress, for a Yankee heiress. Since the late ’70s his plays have enjoyed a minor resurgence in U.K. repertory (as well as at Ontario’s Shaw Festival).
On the evidence of “Voysey,” it’s perhaps too easy but awfully convenient to compare Granville-Barker to his contemporary and friend G.B. Shaw. Both crafted intelligent seriocomedies addressing meaty, contemporary issues, but Granville-Barker seems much the lesser talent in terms of wit, character complexity and dramatic tension.
On Ralph Funicello’s aptly stodgy Victorian-study set, the Voysey clan idles before dinner. All the grown children are present: soon-to-be-married Ethel (Lauren Grace), who airily proclaims her preferred wedding present is a fat check; anxiously unattached younger daughter Honor (Cheryl Weaving); sober elder brother Trenchard (Mark Robbins), a lawyer; boorish military man Booth (Andy Murray), whose notion of parlor conversation sounds much like barked orders; self-proclaimed “artist of the family” Hugh (Stephen Caffrey); and levelheaded Edward (Anthony Fusco), who has recently joined the family investment firm as junior partner.
As longtime intended Alice Maitland (Rene Augesen) duly laments, Edward has been a gloomy Gus of late. To everyone’s annoyance, he delays supper by insisting the beloved patriarch (Ken Ruta) hear the reason for his son’s “damned gallows look.”
That look is laid bare in a simple question: “What have you done with the money?” Going over the firm’s books has revealed to Edward an awful truth — client accounts have been routinely emptied and properties mortgaged, all in secret, to shuffle funds, permit personal stock speculation, etc. At any moment, much of the investors’ capital is extant on paper but worth zilch in actual cash. Just one patron requesting a simple audit, or transfer of his funds, could topple the whole house of cards, resulting in public scandal and criminal prosecution.
Papa offers first weak evasions, then grim admittance shaded by his own indignation. “Why is it so hard for a man to see clearly beyond the letter of the law?” he harrumphs, stressing, “I tell no unnecessary lies.” This is simply how business is done, he says.
When curtain rises after intermission, father has passed away and Edward is running the business. He has nearly succeeded in “clearing out this nest of lies” via tortuous penny-pinching and reduced profits. Soon the firm need have no fear of fraud charges — so long as the gap between propriety and practice can be maintained a little longer. Unfortunately, “the smash” arrives when a lifelong customer chooses to jump ship. It looks like the Voyseys will go down with it after all.
Those original English auds who saw Granville-Barker’s drama must have been titillated by its broaching this subject of upper-crust, biz-as-usual chicanery. But that particular hypocrisy is a well-known, all-pervasive fact of life these days, and its tepid laying out here does not rivet anew.
While Mamet has made some deft changes to the original work’s pace and narrative details, there’s no echo of his own voice in the pedestrian retro dialogue (“How dare you, sir, speak to me of shame!”), which despite all the cuts still hammers a single point home with tiresome obviousness.
A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff struggles to blow the dust off a stuffy text’s heavy upholstery. Her cast is competent but held hostage to the one-dimensional colorlessness of their characters as written.
Sole thesp who gets to have any fun is Caffrey, tossing his requisite long hair and cape about as the very model of a wannabe Romantic aesthete. The logic behind Hugh’s second-act show of moral fiber, however, seems one of the few valuable things lost in shrinking “Voysey” from three to two hours.