Theatre in Review: The Late Christopher Bean (The Actors Company Theatre at Theatre Row)
The Late Christopher Bean
Light and Sound America
November 12, 2009
If anyone knows of Sidney Howard today, it's because his name is on the screenplay of Gone With the Wind; less remembered is the fact that, for 20 years, he kept Broadway supplied with a steady stream of comedies and dramas. However, given the sparkling Actors Company Theatre production of The Late Christopher Bean, it's high time somebody reviewed the rest of Howard's catalog to see what other lost gems may be laying in wait.
In The Late Christopher Bean, first produced in 1932, the stolid household of a Massachusetts doctor collides with a cadre of New York art-world types, resulting in sheer moral mayhem.
Howard adapted Bean from a play by the French author Rene Fauchois, so I don't know who provided the cast-iron construction; suffice 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. At first, he literally reels from the shock of the money being dangled in front of him. Yet, when told that one of Bean's letters, quoted in the Atlantic Monthly, calls him a "gargoyle," he simmers into a perfect slow burn.
Murtaugh is perfectly matched with Cynthia Darlow, as the missus, who, with her short stature, bobbed hair, and air of offended propriety, is a dead ringer for the pug dog depicted in needlepoint in a pillow on the couch. Striding across the living room in search of the moral high ground, her hands snatching at the scarf that she wields so flamboyantly, her voice booming in disapproval, she is a figure out of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy. She's at her best when, her eyes flying in every possible direction, she shiftily admits that she might have burned a couple -- or ten -- of Bean's paintings.
Providing the comedy with a real heart is Mary Bacon, as Abby, the maid, who possesses a surprising knowledge of painting technique, along with a Bean portrait that everyone covets. She's dryly amusing when commenting that one of Dr. Haggett's deliveries has arrived so soon after the wedding that they "had to brush the rice off" the baby. And, as it becomes clear that she was devoted to Bean in more ways than one, we have someone we can care about in the midst of all this finagling. There's also fine work from Greg McFadden as the first of Bean's "friends" -- his last name keeps changing -- to appear on the scene; Bob Ari, as a self-righteous art dealer ("It's not the artists I exploit -- it's the customers!"); and James Prendergast, as a critic whose expert eye gives one of the Haggetts' daughters the courage to elope with her a boyfriend, a painter with a nice, school-of-Bean, technique.
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.
Despite its many years on the bookshelf, The Late Christopher Bean -- with its cast of art-world connivers and money-mad civilians, set against a background of economic hard times -- causes laughter that contains an oddly contemporary ring. Cheers to T.A.C.T for digging it up; in a funny way, they've given Sidney Howard the Christopher Bean treatment, rescuing him from obscurity. Clearly we need to get to know him better.--David Barbour