David Mamet treamlines Harley Granville-Barker’s
Harvey Granville-Barker is one of the most unfamiliar British playwrights of the early 20th century. His reputation as a contemporary playwright of the period has been overshadowed by the fame of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and J.M. Barrie. Granville-Barker has recently come to the forefront through productions in London, Baltimore and New York with revised scripts to suit modern tastes. The Voysey Inheritance was first presented in London in 1905 and the play about greed is as relevant today as it was in Edwardian times. It has been rewritten and adapted several times since its first appearance, including a Mint Company production in New York in 2000.
American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the world premier of the newest revision by David Mamet, with major changes. Some of the dialogue is by Mamet, alongside gems from Grandville-Barker’s pen (especially the brilliant confrontation of father and son in the first scene and the son's war of words with members of the family after the death of the father). The original play ran approximately four hours, in five acts, and has been shortened to four scenes, two acts in this new two hour, 20 minute production. Some of the original characters have been taken out and a garden scene has been eliminated. Thanks to director Carey Perloff, the production is fast paced with very little pontificated speeches on the evils of power and avidity.
The Voysey Inheritance centers around Edward (Anthony Fusco) and his father Mr. Voysey (Ken Ruda) who are partners in a respectable law firm that specializes in trusts and estates, founded by the Edward's deceased grandfather. Edward, to his horror, finds out that his father has been dipping into the clients’ capital to speculate in the stock market. The clients have been receiving interest on their capital, but if they wish to withdraw all of their money, they are in for a rude awakening. Edward’s distress is increased when his father tells him that all of these “robbing peter to pay paul” antics started with the grandfather and the father has only continued his practices. Amazingly, no one ever found out until Edward started to look at the books. Edward is a highly moral character and he feels his father should make it right; he intends to expose his father and the family to this fraud. “Let chips fall where they may,” he feels.
The Voysey family is not about to have their honorable name dragged through the mud nor are they are about to give up their upper-class life style. They are for letting the fraud go on, even after the father’s death at the start of the second scene. When the moral son has a brilliant confrontation with members of the family after the funeral, there is a striking clash of points of view from eldest, stuffy brother Trenchard (Mark Robbins), no-nonsense sister Honor (Cheryl Weaver), boisterous Major Booth Voysey (Andy Murray), artist and moralist Hugh (Stephen Caffrey), and Edward’s calm mother (Barbara Marsh Oliver). Edward goes along with the family to protect their “good name” and “up market living styles.”
As in all good morality plays, things start to unravel as Edward’s father's good friend George Booth (Gary Neal Johnson), one of the principal clients of the law firm, wants to withdraw all of his capital following the death of the father. The man is supported by the self-righteous Rev. Evan Colpus (Julian Lopez Morillas) and a little blackmail by the subservient Peacey (Mark Robbins), who is not getting his “Christmas bonus” for keeping his mouth shut. There are no high-tone morals or neat wrapping up to tie everything together at the end of the production.
Director Carey Perloff has assembled an extraordinary cast of actors in this dazzling production. Ken Ruda (recently seen in The Right Kind of People at the Magic) returns to the A.C.T. stage to give a scintillating performance as the senior Mr. Voysey. He has a commanding presence on stage. What a shame that playwright Mamet has him die off at the end of the first scene. Anthony Fusco (A.C.T.’S The Gamester, A Mother, Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is excellent as the complacent Edward. He is the complete opposite of his father and is conscience-ridden in the first act until he becomes very self-satisfied about the fraud. He is extremely good in his scene with the smarmy head clerk Peacey who wants his “Christmas hush money.” Mark Robbins (has appeared in many Kansas City Rep Theatre Production) plays two roles: the elder brother Trenchard and Peacey. He is especially fine as the sycophantic clerk straight out of a Dickens novel.
Rene Augesen (A.C.T. core member) is the most interesting character among the women in the play. She plays Edward’s fiancée Alice and she is passionate and observant in the part. Gary Neal Johnson (many productions at Kansas City Rep Theatre) is flawless in the role of wheeler dealer George Booth in the second act. I am somewhat reminded of the great Everett Sloan when he played villains in films. Stephen Caffrey (A.C.T.’S The Real Thing and A Doll’s House) as the artist brother, who is the only moralist in the play, is very good, especially in his second act speech about the poor of London. One is reminded the type of speeches found in George Bernard Shaw plays.
Andy Murray (A.C.T.’s The Gamester and Time of Your Life) is properly windy and smug as Major Booth Voysey. Cheryl Weaver (appeared in many Kansas City Rep productions) is very good as Honor. Her character has been cut down from the original Grandville-Barker script but has several good scenes as the practical member of the family. The younger sister Ethel Voysey is played by Lauren Grace (recently seen in A.C.T.’s Hilda and Emma at the Aurora) gives a sentimental performance as a naïve young girl who loves money. The wonderful Barbara Marsh Oliver (founding artistic director of the Aurora Theatre and has appeared in over 30 roles at Berkeley Re) makes her A.C.T. debut as the elder Mrs. Voysey, who is rather hard of hearing. She beautifully displays the calmness of the character even when things are going bad. She is reminiscent of Lillian Gish in many of her later films. Julian Lopez-Morillas (many roles in Willows Theatre productions, recently seen as Capt. Long John Silver in Treasure Island) plays the virtuous Rev. Evan Colpus. He is properly sanctimonious in the role.
Ralph Funicello’s grand drawing room set is very aristocratic with its dark wood, lush draperies and high-born bits and pieces of the room. It smacks of money and power. Deborah Dryden’s Edwardian gowns and evening wear are opulent. The Voysey Inheritance is a witty, impeccably crafted portrait of a family in the midst of a modern moral dilemma. It is as relevant today as it was in Edwardian times.
The Voysey Inheritance plays through April 17 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-749-2228 or going to www.actsf.org. A.C.T.'s next production will be Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten opening on April 28th and running through May 29th. The last production of the current season will be Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia opening on June 10 and running through July 10.