The ever-enterprising Atlantic Theater Company delivers a bracing revival, anchored by a regal performance from Fritz Weaver, of Harley Granville Barker’s classic study of the ethical fault lines on which 19th century financial buccaneers founded their entrepreneurial empires. Sharply illuminated in a crisp adaptation by David Mamet and advanced by a tip-top ensemble under helmer David Warren, the cautionary themes of “The Voysey Inheritance” — the corruptive nature of capitalist economic models and their corrosive impact on the human character — emerge with shattering clarity.
Granville Barker’s great design collaborator, Gordon Craig, surely would have approved of Derek McLane’s setting for this 1905 problem drama. Luxurious in the extreme with its solid dark furniture, portrait-hung walls and elaborate window treatment, the library of the Voysey mansion has been decorated on an Olympian scale to match the ego of the English financial baron who built this domestic castle.
Gregory Gale’s intricately constructed costumes (and the handsome, uncredited wigs) are every bit as class-defining in their rich materials and excruciatingly fussy details. To wear such evening clothes with ease, one cannot be an ordinary mortal. One must, in fact, be very, very rich.
In Weaver’s elegant perf, the patriarch of the Voysey clan conveys the whole package — comfort in his clothes, security in his wealth and a sense of entitlement to his privileges — despite the fact that he has been systematically embezzling from his clients to support his baronial lifestyle.
When confronted by his distraught son, Edward (a superb Michael Stuhlbarg), Voysey admits to his criminal chicanery with the kind of imperial grace that only a class actor like Weaver can carry off in high style. When asked outright whether he has gone mad, this charming old fox draws himself up with the utmost dignity and carefully explains that his unscrupulous way of doing business was “the family inheritance,” passed down by an even more illustrious thief: his own father.
“Children always think the worst of their parents,” Mr. Voysey acknowledges, with an ironic smile to drive the point home. “It’s a pity.”
In paring down Granville Barker’s orotund wordsmithery for the flannel ears of a modern audience, Mamet has seized on the drama’s generational conflict and heightened its contemporary relevance. But while Mamet’s forceful finger-pointing and Warren’s incisive directorial follow-through might naturally lead one to think of latter-day scoundrels and the perverted values they have passed on to the next generation, the elemental fathers-and-sons drama was there all along.
After that crackling showdown between Weaver’s magisterial father and Stuhlbarg’s high-minded son, the play takes a breath that allows us to admire the rest of the company as they prepare their attack on a secondary but no less challenging theme — the corruptive effect of the Voysey code of ethics on everyone who buys into it.
On this front, Peter Maloney commands the stage with his well-thought-out portrayal of George Booth, a family friend who finds it easier to accept being defrauded by the elder Voysey than to take the honorable restitution offered by young George. As Maloney ponders the moral dilemma of this blunt chap, you can practically feel the itch of greed crawling beneath his skin.
As the complications of this well-constructed play unfold, all members of the Voysey household, including the servants, are placed in positions where they must decide whether to accept or reject their tainted legacy. The stakes are high for them all, from Alice Maitland (a luminous Samantha Soule), whose engagement to George hangs by a thread, to the various siblings who stand to lose everything if they take the honorable path of their brother.
With a few noble exceptions, most of them go for the greed — and in the play’s ambiguous ending, even George’s final decision is open to interpretation. But in the nuanced perfs of this smart ensemble, it’s still interesting to watch them all squirm.