Sound familiar?  Could these headlines be referring to convicted felon Bernie Madoff?

Actually, not.

In fact, the setting is Edwardian England, and the man responsible for the lost fortunes is a British solicitor named Voysey, in Harley Granville-Barker’s prophetic 1905 drama The Voysey Inheritance.

As last night’s Theatre 40 audience sat engrossed in David Mamet’s 2005 adaptation of Granville-Barker’s original play, gasps of recognition were audible at the revelation of similarities between the fictional Voysey crimes of 100 years ago and the very real ones which came to light in the United States only last year.  Rarely has a century-old play better reflected contemporary reality than The Voysey Inheritance.

Mamet’s adaptation opens with an introduction to the Voysey family.  In addition to the pater familias, there’s son Edward, who works with his father in the family firm; Edward’s fiancée Alice; son Booth, a Major in the British army; daughter Ethel, who’s also engaged to be married; George Booth, a longtime client; and Peacey, the Voyseys’ clerk. Discussion in the library is your typical after-dinner sort of chit-chat. Alice is gently chiding Edward for his preoccupation with business and his accompanying inattentiveness to his future wife. Major Booth is once again explaining why conscription is needed to improve the “fundamentals of honor” in British men.  Ethel is requesting of her Papa a generous check as a wedding present. George is as usual asking Voysey senior for investment advice.

Edward too has something on his mind, but he waits until all but his father have left the library to reveal what it is—and what it is is a shocker. While going over the firm’s books, Edward has discovered to his horror that his father has been appropriating (i.e. stealing) his clients’ capital for his own personal investments. True, dividends have been paid out to clients as usual, but their capital has been reduced pretty much to nothing, and clearly it’s only a matter of time before Voysey’s crime will come to light.

Astonishingly, Voysey Père seems unfazed by his son’s discovery. The illegal activity wasn’t his idea, he explains nonchalantly.  His own father came up with the idea over thirty years ago and Mr. Voysey has simply been covering his father’s mistakes as any good son would, and he expects nothing less from his own offspring. “Why is it so hard for a man to see clearly beyond the letter of the law?” he wonders aloud.  Edward is aghast. What his grandfather and father have done is criminal, and something must be done to put things right.

When Mr. Voysey dies not quite a year after this conversation, Edward sees his chance to set things right, if only he can do so without interference from brothers Trenchard, Booth, and Hugh, employees like Peacey, who expects his customary Christmas bonus slash “hush money,” and clients like George Booth, who could at any minute decide to withdraw all his securities from the firm.

Mamet’s adaptation retains Granville-Barker’s 1905 setting and most of his cast of characters (although some family members have been eliminated), but focuses more on Edward’s ethical dilemma than on family dynamics. The language is sparer, with occasional examples of Mametspeak, though none of his customary profanity. The Mamet adaptation seems at once classic and modern, and the master playwright creates considerable tension and suspense.

Director Bruce Gray keeps the action taut and the performances entirely real, beginning with a stellar leading man turn by Alec Beard as Edward, the L.A. newcomer delivering a forceful, charismatic, sympathetic performance as a man of honor willing to do what he can to make up for his father’s criminal actions—short of coming clean to clients and the police. Supporting performances are all around excellent, including those of Jon Woodward-Kirby (military son Booth, for whom family honor is everything), Milan Cronovich (artist son Hugh, troubled that his pursuits have been subsidized by his father’s dishonesty), and Jaymes Wheeler (eldest son Trenchard, whose main concern is the (il)legalities of the affair). Patrick John Hurley effectively conveys Mr. Voysey’s “so-what” attitude towards his crimes and John McGuire makes a strong impression in his scenes as Reverend Colpus. Theatre 40 regular Lary Ohlson delivers another memorable performance as weasely clerk Peacey.  The women do fine work as well, Diana Angelina as Mrs. Voysey, Amy Moorman and Katharine Jameson as daughters Honor and Ethel, and Debbie Jaffe as Edward’s fiancée Alice. Best of all is Theatre 40 Artistic Director David Hunt Stafford (George Booth), disappearing into the skin of a man devastated to learn that almost his entire fortune has been lost, and determined to do whatever he can to salvage what’s left, even if it means destroying the Voyseys in the process.

Jeff G. Rack’s elegant, exquisitely detailed Voysey library is one of his best set designs ever, and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is equally striking. (Watch the way sunlight shines onto characters’ faces when they look out through “windows” in the fourth wall.)  Bill Froggatt’s sound design includes a scene/era-appropriate musical backdrop.  Suzanne Scott’s elegant costumes are mostly period-perfect with the exception of a dress or two which look ten or more years ahead of their time.

It seems almost unbelievable that a play so closely paralleling the crimes of Bernie Madoff could have been written well over a hundred years before Madoff’s arrest, but the “Ponzi scheme” was, after all, named after a contemporary of Granville-Barker, and who knows, the Greeks may well have had a word for it too. The Voysey Inheritance provides a fascinating look into a world of wealth and power, secrets and lies. It’s cracklingly good entertainment.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
July 1, 2009
                                                                                             Photos: Ed Krieger

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