When he wrote The Voysey Inheritance over a hundred years ago, Harley Granville-Barker intended to show the rot beneath the politely conventional exterior of Edwardian society. The plot concerns a solicitor who uses his clients' funds to enrich himself and his family while managing to keep up with interest payments and avoid suspicion. In short, he's running a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff. At the beginning of the play, his son, Edward, learns what has been going on, and when his father dies fairly soon after, he has a decision to make. Will he come clean to clients and the law and accept the consequences, or will he continue the deception and work to return the money over time? This dilemma represents his inheritance.
Naturally, most members of the large Voysey family advocate the latter course, or want Edward to simply continue the larcenous schemes of Voysey Senior — schemes that he himself inherited from his father. A sister whines about marriage expenses; a brother thunders about the family name; another brother, Hugh, moves from callous indifference to the plight of those left destitute to eventual delight in his newfound freedom from the burdens of wealth. Edward's mother reveals that she's perfectly aware of what's been going on and doesn't want to discuss it, and Edward's fiancée mocks him gently for attempting to be heroic. And several people point out that Edward will do wounded clients far less good by coming forward than by continuing the charade and eventually making up their losses.
Only a few years before the current financial collapse, David Mamet — whose own plays often feature both financial matters and groups of people behaving badly — rescued this work from semi-oblivion and tightened it, cutting dialogue and tossing out a few characters, though without changing the tone, setting or situation. Obviously, a play about financial shenanigans is particularly relevant today, when our own ways of investing and doing business have spawned financial instruments so complex that even experts blanch at being asked to explain them. And the human response to money is just as murky now as it was in Granville-Barker's time; people can justify almost anything when their own financial viability is at stake. So in the play, even the man who seems most innocently good-natured eventually figures out how to turn events to his own advantage — and the disadvantage of others.
Despite Mamet's ministrations, The Voysey Inheritance still makes for a very wordy evening, and occasionally a puzzling one. For example, who's Beatrice? Who's Honor? Turns out Beatrice is one of the characters excised by Mamet (Hugh's wife, she no longer appears on stage); Honor, who is on stage but rarely speaks, is a Voysey sister. Although she's played with dignity and composure by Jeanne Paulsen, I never figured out where she stood on the issues or what kind of person she was supposed to be. She does say some rather sweet things at the end, but you can't tell if that's meant to show her as sunnily dim-witted or enigmatically deep — and that has to be the fault of the script.
But then, no one seems very real or consistent, except perhaps Michael Winters's excellent George Booth. As father Voysey, Philip Pleasants can't seem to stop himself from slipping into declamatory Shakespearean mode, especially when he's angry, when surely it would have required smugly impermeable Edwardian gentility — maintained particularly under pressure — to have successfully bilked so many people. Sam Gregory is an excellent actor, with a sardonic edge that works beautifully when he's playing Lucio in Measure for Measure and adds an interesting dimension to George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but just doesn't fit with the character of Edward, who I'm pretty sure is supposed to come across as honest and sincere. As it was, watching Edward ostensibly searching for an honorable way out, I kept wondering what he was plotting.