The Late Christopher Bean
The Late Christopher Bean
Edge New York
November 11, 2009
It’s not too late to see the Actors Company Theater’s current production of The Late Christopher Bean at the Beckett on Theater Row. That’s welcome news, as there are few more fun shows running in New York right now than this amusing mix of the humane and the scabrous, a revival of a farce by depression-era playwright Sidney Howard, which is adapted from an earlier French original entitled Prenez Garde A La Peinture, by Rene Fauchois.
Cynthia Darlow, James Murtaugh (seated), Kate Middleton,
Greg McFadden, James Prendergast, and Bob Ari in
The Late Christopher Bean’ (Source:Stephen Kunken)
If the latter name is wholly unfamiliar, that’s as understandable as it is unjust. After all, Fauchois’ work is rarely performed today even in France. Yet he was also the author of the play Boudu Saved From Drowning, which director Jean Renoir skillfully adapted into the classic French film comedy of the same name and which Paul Mazursky looked to in creating Down and Out In Beverly Hills. An actor-playwright, Fauchois knew how to craft great parts, knew where to mine laughs and how to keep his best plot twists for the end.
Yet Fauchois isn’t the only name here deserving of praise. The Late Christopher Bean was turned into a 1933 film with a top-flight cast including Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler, and the film version operates at a mostly tepid pace. That version is far from a laugh riot. This version, however, is something else.
The story is set in the home of a small-town Yankee doctor (James Murtaugh) struggling to make ends meet servicing a mostly idle local patient population. The doctor also wishes to find husbands for his two twenty-something daughters and to placate his wife (Cynthia Darlow), who has the charm, looks and subtlety of a battleship. The voice of common sense and decency in the household is their maid, Abby (Mary Bacon), who is about to depart for Chicago to help her widower brother with four children on the day the action takes place.
Most of this energetic story revolves around the sudden appearance of a succession of New York art world sophisticates. The New Yorkers are intrigued by the possibility that the physician may have paintings lying around his house by a now-dead artist who spent some of his final days living in consumptive and drunken indigence in a barn on the property.
The set by Charlie Corcoran is wonderfully a propos in suggesting the unimaginative but harmless bumpkin style of another era, and the direction by Jenn Thompson is neither slack nor artificially hectic. Murtaugh and Bacon, in the respective roles of the avaricious, skinflint doctor and the innocent but honorable serving girl, are both appealing and astonishingly natural in the many double-takes and deadpan glances the script requires of them. (Full disclosure: as a playwright, I employed Ms. Bacon in a play reading once a few years ago.)
Also acquitting themselves admirably are Greg McFadden, Bob Ari and James Prendergast in the parts of the three self-important and smooth-talking interlopers from the big city.
Less appealing is Ms. Darlow, who on the night I saw the show, seemed not always to know her lines.
The Late Christopher Bean has its share of hokum, but there’s much more about greed and human frailty here that’s truer than we’d all like to admit. And if the play is cynical it has heart, too, in its depiction of the feisty serving-maid and a younger daughter’s alternately separate and mutual quests for love. These frame the story of the hunt for valuable but lost art masterpieces.
Isn’t it interesting that while the New York theater world is mourning the purportedly untimely demise of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, that spurious and dated work from the 1980’s, something much better has arrived that’s "Late" but very much on time?