By Miller Hudson
“The Voysey Inheritance,” by Harley Granville-Barker in a new adaptation by David Mamet. Directed by Bruce K. Sevy, and playing in the Space Theatre at the DCPA through Oct. 24.
“Oh! What a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
Walter Scott got it right 200 years before Bernie Madoff appeared on the front page of American newspapers. Harley Granville-Barker, a contemporary and producer of George Bernard Shaw’s London shows, described the recurring pattern of investment swindling 15 years before Charles Ponzi lent his name to the practice.
Written in 1905, “The Voysey Inheritance” reminds us that the gullible — much like the poor — are always with us. Mamet’s decision to resurrect this chestnut could not come at a more propitious time. His streamlining of the original provides a contemporary crispness to this story that feels tailored to the present moment. Mamet’s rewrite took place three years ago but seems to anticipate the financial debacle of this past year. We are indebted to the Denver Center Theatre Company for a pitch perfect production.
The play unfolds in an affluent Edwardian living room populated by the extended Voysey family, their retainers, servants and clients. It is soon evident that the six Voysey children have enjoyed a cosseted passage into adult life. The Voyseys’ prosperity has relied for decades on earnings from the investment trust administered by their pater familias, identified only as Mr. Voysey, who promptly dies.
The company’s affairs are then entrusted to his son, Edward, in a fine performance by Sam Gregory. Edward has known for some time that the family’s wealth has been systematically looted from his father’s clients. The generous “interest” these clients have been “earning” from their investment holdings has papered over the methodical looting of their principal. Edward wants to make things right for those who will be most damaged when this house of cards inevitably collapses.
His siblings’ motives are neither as pure nor as noble, and they are not as ignorant of what has been transpiring as Edward had surmised. There is a lot of talk about what is ethical and what is fair — even speculation that perpetuating the fraud would be kindest to all. One sister still expects a lavish wedding. This mix of family dynamics, greed and fear unfolds with the fascination of watching spiders as they scramble for the dry side of a log when it is captured in a torrent.
Michael Winters returns to the Center company in this play as George Booth, one Voysey client who simply cannot accept the notion that the architect of this fraud has been his friend of long standing.
Edward’s fiancée, Alice, who is routinely and abruptly excluded from family conversations, may be the only character without an ax to grind. Needless to say, despite her common sense advice, things do not end well.
The social embarrassment that everyone wishes to avoid is, of course, unavoidable. If great theater is measured by whether you depart with something to think about, then this is a great production.
Miller Hudson, a former Denver Democratic state representative, is currently a legislative and government consultant. He has been a frequent reviewer of the performing arts for The Statesman over the years.