Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Bit of Dirty Business

"The Voysey Inheritance" at Atlantic Theatre Company, January 16, 2007

David Mamet's adaptation of the Harley Granville Barker play points out to me that Mr. Mamet loves a bit of dirty business. (Spoiler Alert)

Edward Voysey (Michael Stuhlbarg) has just figured out that his father Mr. Voysey (Fritz Weaver) has been cooking the books in the family trust business for at least the last ten years. When confronted about it, Mr. Voysey informs Edward that he "inherited" the same situation with the business from his own father many years earlier. Nearly apoplectic about the ramifications in 1905 London, Edward is cut to the core on how to proceed. If he announces the matter to his clientele, the result will be disgrace and bankruptcy for the entire family, including his brothers the pompous one, Major Booth Voysey (C. J. Wilson), the practical one, Trenchard Voysey (Christopher Duva), and the sensitive one, Hugh Voysey (Todd Weeks), as well as sisters Honor (Rachel Black) and Ethel (Tricia Paoluccio). Further, both Edward and Mr. Voysey would likely end up in prison. Frozen by the decision, Edward begins working to restore the missing money, but within a year, Mr. Voysey has died. It is then he learns that there were many others, including his own mother (Judith Roberts), who knew of the ongoing fraud. One skill Mr. Voysey, and now Edward, had mastered was never missing scheduled distribution payments to the beneficiaries of each trust.

I heard an interview with Mr. Stuhlbarg about the play, who commented that after reading the original, there were large sections left untouched by Mr. Mamet in his adaptation. I'm not sure whose work it is on which I'll be commenting. There's somewhat of a "Chekhovian" feel to the premise of the play - once rich folks still acting so and able to take desparate measures to keep their status quo. What seems key to making such a situation compelling is that one cares about the characters either in spite of, or because of their flaws. This was only partly successful for me, and I think more as a result of the performances than of the writing.

Mr. Stuhlbarg's Edward is so overwhelmed in the first few scenes that he can hardly speak without betraying his own feelings of misery and woe over his recent discovery. He does, however, keep Edward at somewhat of a whimper, even when the company secretary, Mr. Peacey (Steven Goldstein) asks for his annual "bonus" after helping Edward begin the recovery of their clients' assets the year after Mr. Voysey has died. Once might have expected Edward to show more strength, and even though he still refuses the request, it is the potential freeing of the burden by exposure that lets him go head to head with Mr. Peacey. Mr. Stuhlbarg remains torn over the higher concept of the rich protecting themselves and each other to maintain one's station in life, as it were. During a conversation with brother Hugh, the artist, Edward says "...the poor are always with us." Hugh replies "But does it follow that we must betray the rich?" Edward's fiancee Alice (Samantha Soule) also factors in with her own situation. Having inherited her own money which she also manages herself (making her quite modern for the era) she shares what she was told upon taking control of it, "You did nothing to earn it. Don't be surprised if someone tries to take it away from you."

The rest of the cast were solid. Notable was Mr. Weaver as the elder Mr. Voysey, regal and charming, even when confronted with his own misdeeds. Ms. Roberts as Mrs. Voysey recalled a certain Julie Christie quality for me. Ms. Soule as Edward's fiancee Alice was warm and loving. Ms. Paoluccio and Ms. Black as sisters Ethel and Honor, respectively held true to their contrasts - Ethel, somewhat selfish and immature - Honor, silent and above reproach.

Director David Warren does his best to keep the action moving, but it's still an Edwardian era drawing room melodrama. I found the occasional opening of scenes with singing a bit forced for the proceedings. Derek McLane remains a master of sets, well supported by Jeff Croiter's lighting. I had a few questions on some of the men's dinner wear choices in the first act - perhaps Gregory Gale's research time was limited to the gorgeous black jet-beaded gown worn by Ms. Roberts in the first act. Much of the rest seemed like an afterthought.

(Starwatch: Estelle Parsons in the audience at this performance)

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