Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Late Christopher Bean


By Sidney Howard. Directed by Jenn Thompson. At The Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row. (CLOSED)

The Actors Company Theater makes good on its quest to present "neglected or rarely produced plays of literary merit" with this revival of Sidney Howard's farce The Late Christopher Bean, last seen 'round these parts in 1932. Most critics score the play according to TACT's stated goals, and most report a well-produced night of comedy, with company member Cynthia Darlow receiving multiple praises for her acting work. The action takes place in the Boston home of a doctor and his wife who discover that their long-dead starving-artist lodger has been declared a genius, posthumously. A New York art critic and others descend on the house to find his now-priceless early work and hilarity ensues as the different players battle for a piece of the pie. Every theatre has a Mission Statement (usually containing the phrase "human condition"), but few have a mission that is at once comprehensible and consistently fulfilled. Critics seem gratified that a story about forgotten art has been revived by a company devoted to finding forgotten art. The critics also appreciate the prescience and merit of this particular revival because Bean's plot is animated by the farcical force of Greed.

The New Yorker A
(Unattributed) Sidney Howard’s 1932 comedy, which has been unjustly gathering dust, gets a first-rate outing by the Actors Company Theatre. Dr. Haggett (the terrific James Murtaugh), a country physician living outside of Boston, becomes the sudden focus of the art-world √©lite when he turns out to be the unknowing owner of a stash of priceless paintings. As collectors and scammers gather at his doorstep, his simple life is upended and his family descends into a collective frenzy of greed. (Cynthia Darlow, a company veteran, is particularly scrumptious as the devil-eyed matriarch.) The relevance of Depression-era avarice is not the only reason to revive the play: Jenn Thompson’s production proves it to be a gem in any era, and catnip for a comedic ensemble.

Backstage A
(Lisa Jo Sagolla) The comic antics are directed with controlled velocity by Jenn Thompson, who never lets the riotous proceedings get so wild as to undermine the elegance of Howard's efficient language, which is where the bulk of the show's sharp humor lies. The production resides comfortably within Charlie Corcoran's handsomely homey 1930s farmhouse set and is smartly cast with outstanding comedic actors, who all manage to mark their characters with a singular, appealing peculiarity.

Theatre Mania A
(David Finkle) Under Jenn Thompson's warm and tidy direction, it's loaded with laughs; it has nine carefully articulated parts for the accomplished actors assembled here to enliven; and it contains genuine plot surprises right up to the deeply satisfying curtain line. What more do you need? ... Howard's portrait of greed is worthy of a Moliere satire, and Murtaugh grabs the role of Dr. Haggett and makes hay with it. By the time Haggett understands that tens of thousands of dollars are available to him if he can locate the missing paintings, Murtaugh's entire body is vibrating.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) [S]uffice to say that, except for one or two moments when the action briefly drifts into expositional cul-de-sacs, this is an expertly plotted farce, filled with exquisitely timed bombshells that continue dropping up until the very last minute. And, under Jenn Thompson's smartly paced direction, a fine cast expertly underplays this genteel tale of cutthroat negotiations. Leading the way is James Murtaugh, as Dr. Haggett, whose laconic Yankee propriety crumbles into bits as his greed subjects him to a barrage of comic humiliations ... All of this double-dealing takes place on Charlie Corcoran's setting, which, with its dowdy furniture, homely paintings, and hooked rugs, is a fine study in respectable middle-class bad taste. Ben Stanton's lighting bathes the action in a warm, sunshiny glow that contrasts nicely with the dirty doings at hand. Martha Hally's costumes include some nicely tailored men's suits and a sufficiently august day dress for Mrs. Haggett. Stephen Kunken's sound design provides crisp reinforcement for the piano tunes, composed by Mark Berman, that bridge each scene.

Variety B+
(Steven Suskin) 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 ... In the company's hands, the play proves intelligent, well crafted and laugh-out-loud funny.

New York Times B+
(Ken Jawarowski) It’s a play that has remained fresh and funny, proving once again that a strong script is rarely tarnished by time ... Along with its commendable mission to restage forgotten plays, the Actors Company has put an impressive amount of work into its production. The set, by Charlie Corcoran, shows a sharp eye for detail, as do Martha Hally’s costumes and Ben Stanton’s lighting. The cast of nine is often as skilled. Though the actors’ timing occasionally misfires — a number of the jokes elicit wide smiles rather than the big laughs that such writing deserves — the ensemble, directed by Jenn Thompson, is nevertheless engaging. James Murtaugh as Dr. Haggett and Jessiee Datino as his daughter Susan are particularly effective.

New York Post C
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Unfortunately, the proceedings never switch to the necessary higher comic gear. As the increasingly frenzied Haggett patriarch, James Murtaugh -- looking like Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" -- comes closest to the right sense of exaggeration. Overall, the production sticks to an amiable canter when a full gallop's required.

The New Yorker A 13; Backstage A 13; Theatre Mania A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; Variety B+ 11; New York Times B+ 11; New York Post C 7. TOTAL: 81/7 = 11.6 (A-)

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