Bob Ari, Mary Bacon, Hunter Canning, Cynthia Darlow, Jessiee Datino, Greg McFadden, Kate Middleton, James Murtaugh, James Prendergast
OK, it’s a bit dusty, but The Late Christopher Bean, a 1932 play by Pulitzer-winner Sidney Howard is one hell of a well-constructed play. Given a splendid revival by The Actors Company Theatre off-Broadway at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, the play, as these fine actors interpret it, is wisely allowed to remain in its original time period, speaking to today’s audiences across the years thanks to Jenn Thompson’s no-frills direction.
A self-professed “simple country doctor” finds his world flipped upside down when, on the eve of his housekeeper Abby’s departure from his home, a series of men arrive in his sitting room, each with a different – and yet strangely similar – confession: they were good friends of the late Christopher Bean, a painter whom Dr. Haggett took into his care not long before the painter’s death, and they’re looking to find any of his works that may have survived the years.
The plot takes a number of savvy twists and turns. The young painter Warren Creamer, a pupil of Bean’s holds sway over the hearts of Dr. Haggett’s two daughters, Susan and Ada, providing a romantic foil for the scandalous backdoor dealings in which the doctor soon finds himself engaged. As the plot thickens, the focus begins to shift from Dr. Haggett to Abby, whom the art-transfixed visitors recognize instantly upon their arrivals, much to her dismay.
Abby, an avid art-lover and a dear friend to the Haggett’s – even, in some ways, to cranky Mrs. Haggett (played with delightful distaste by Cynthia Darlow) – shifts over the course of the play from beloved servant to undeserved adversary. As Abby’s relationship with Bean comes to light, our sympathy for her grows and we find ourselves empathizing with a woman whose love of Bean’s artwork transcends the greed that descends upon the Haggett’s like a plague.
The times of the play are desperate ones. Dr. Haggett begins many a sentence with “These days…,” lamenting the state of the world in a time between the wars when our nation’s financial situation was almost as dire as it is now. We can see in Dr. Haggett’s aspirations – his desire for fortune that strikes him as quickly as a bolt of lightning, consuming him as greedy individuals have been consumed throughout the ages (see Faust).
Amidst a uniformly delightful cast, Mary Bacon stands out as an assured actress of great talent, instilling the character of Abby with a wide-eyed joie de vivre that – with the arch of her brow – caves instantly into astounded, wistful bewilderment. James Murtaugh as simple Dr. Haggett is similarly winning, making the journey from nose-to-the-grindstone workaday doc to scheming aspirant convincingly, his hair increasingly frazzled and his posture more stooped as he regresses.
It’s an old story, perhaps, but a timeless one. The country bumpkin finds himself face to face with a fortune – so long as he’s willing to sacrifice his moral integrity. But more than ever this kind of story seems relevant to New York audiences perched only forty blocks above our nation’s financial center. Branding plays as “dated” is often a lost cause; a play is only dated if its characters no longer speak to us. Even if their exact situations have changed, empathy translates across time and space in more far-reaching ways than some might acknowledge. Bean is one such play.