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A CurtainUp Review
The Late Christopher Bean
By Elyse Sommer
This being the Great Depression Doctor Haggett, the patriarch of this somewhere near Boston house, is hard pressed to maintain all that cozy comfort, let alone pay for the Florida trip on which his socially ambitious wife annually takes their daughters in hopes of their finding well to do husbands. Many of the patients who come to Doctor Haggett's office in another part of the house or seen during house calls are unable to pay for his services. Slow as collections are, Dr. Haggett, unlike today's heavily mortgaged home owners, probably paid up his mortgage long ago so that there's not likely to be an unpleasant surprise like a foreclosure notice.
But there is indeed a surprise in the form of an unexpected financial stimulus for the cash poor Haggetts. It begins with the arrival of a telegram from a New York art expert. He's an admirer of a dead artist (the Christopher Bean of the title) who has been belatedly embraced by the art establishment and who, before his death from tuberculosis and alcoholism, was a patient and non-paying lodger in the Haggett barn.
The events following the arrival of that telegram have all the elements of a screwball comedy-romance. The romance is provided by the younger Haggett daughter Susan and a young house painter with fine arts ambition as well as by Abby, the maid who was Bean's true friend and admirer during his days in the barn. The screwball shenanigans, which build towards the genre's typical chaotic shouting match, revolve around the good Doctor, his avaricious wife Hannah and eldest daughter, Ada being taken in by the scheming New Yorkers.
The various arrivals at the Haggett home offer irresistible opportunities for profiting from the canvases Bean left in the Haggett home. Given that it took New York ten years to recognize Bean's talent, it's quite understandable that the unsophisticated country doctor and his wife did little to treasure and preserve Bean's canvases. The garish floral still life hanging over the family hearth is the untalented Ada's handiwork.
Howard, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his very moving They Knew What They Wanted (later musicalized as The Most Happy Fella), knew not only how to develop his madcap plot with misrepresentations, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, but to give it a satiric edge that has not dulled with time and his characters are more complex than they first appear to be. This is especially true of the Doctor. As characterized by the playwright and wittily portrayed by James Murtaugh, he reveals how even little windfalls have a way of nourishing big time greed in a good man. Murtagh's achievement is to make a man whose fall from honor is not so complete, that you can't help sympathizing with him even when newly nourished greed causes him to behave deplorably.
The play's surface theme that points up the difference between those who view art strictly in terms of its monetary value and those with a more genuine appreciation is the springboard for Howard's larger theme: The moral conflict between greed (exemplified by the Haggetts and their New York visitors, Tallant and Rosen) and the more humane instincts of love and kindness. It is those better instincts that make Abby, the underappreciated maid, the play's true heroine who has you rooting for her when a portrait of her by the late Bean takes on new importance for the various self-serving factions.
Mary Bacon, who was so memorable in the quite different role of Alma Winemiller in TACT's fine revival of Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of a Nightingale (review), is again superb. She makes the simple Abby sweetly naive, convention bound and yet an open-minded, kind and loving free spirit.
Jenn Thompson, who directed Eccentricities. . . as well as TACT's excellent revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce (review), elicits good work from the rest of the ensemble who, thanks to costume designer Martha Hally, all look as if they'd stepped out of the pages of a 1930s magazine. But this Murtagh's and Bacon's show.
Ms. Thompson has wisely conflated acts one and two in keeping with modern single intermission formats and kept the madcap elements from going over the top. Since it's rather easy to anticipate the lessons to be learned and the pretenses to be exposed, one can't help wishing that the directer had also managed to trim the play's first half to bring it a bit closer to an hour than an hour and fifteen minutes.
Howard who was also a successful Hollywood screen writer (he was awarded Oscars for his screenplay of Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind), based The Late Christopher Bean on a French play, Prenez Garde de la Picture by Rene Fauchois. However, his play was a very loose, distinctly American adaptation. While it had a well-received 224-performance Broadway run (1932-33), it hasn't been seen in New York since; nor has it had any sort of life elsewhere. TACT therefore deserves a big round of applause for giving New York audiences a chance to see this well-acted, handsomely staged production.