The Voysey Inheritance at the Caldwell Theatre: A Risk Pays Off

I cannot imagine any play more right for the moment than The Voysey Inheritance. Nor can I imagine any play more wrong. On the one hand, The Voysey Inheritance is about, among other things, Ponzi schemes, financial disaster, and money's way of making slaves out of those who care about it overmuch. On the other hand, it is an enormous production with an enormous cast requiring an enormous and costly set, with a script that seeks to stir up sympathy for a Ponzi schemer.

Clive Cholerton, Caldwell Theatre's new executive artistic director, is probably aware that his theater is located in Boca Raton, and presumably he must notice that Boca Raton has been hit pretty hard by Ponzi schemers lately. Moreover, he's dealing with a core audience well past retirement age (witness the ensemble of screeching hearing aids in the auditorium), and those folks with poorly diversified retirement portfolios are probably not inclined to get all weepy on behalf of those who play fast and loose with other people's money. His theater, like many others, has suffered terribly through the sudden insolvency of many of SoFla's most charitable retirees. Yet here he is, spewing tons of cash on a play that seeks to humanize... the enemy!

And a fine job he does too. The Voysey Inheritance, as it is currently running at Caldwell, is an abridgement of a much longer play of the same name by Harley Granville-Barker. David Mamet handled the splice-and-dice, though there's nothing very Mametian about it. (The theme is up Mamet's alley, though, and he must have liked the fact that a few of Voysey's characters have about as much human warmth as lizards.) Almost an hour of the original play has been removed, but invisibly — this is a complete and devilishly intricate story missing not one iota of important exposition, a story that chugs and flows and builds and ebbs as naturally as life.

Curtain up on Edward Voysey (Terry Hardcastle) in turn-of-the-(previous)-century attire in an English mansion's grand library. He is plainly upset. He pours himself a drink. In comes his father (Peter Haig) to scold him for having remained quiet at a family dinner and for skittering away so, and then others come too — soon the room is full of people, Edward's escape from social niceties thwarted. He seems to deflate in his chair. Five minutes later, Edward is alone again with the elder Voysey and decides to tell him the awful truth: He has learned that his father, a banker, has built his family a fraudulent fortune — he used investors' money to speculate wildly on business propositions and has lost most of their cash. What remains is the Voysey money and whatever the elder Voysey can scam from new suckers, and he slowly doles these bit sums to his unknowing clients as interest payments. His ledgers are bare.

We then proceed — rapidly, it seems, even though the play clocks in at just over two hours — through three years in the life of the Voysey family, during which the elder Voysey dies and leaves Edward as executor of his estate and proprietor of the family business, which Edward attempts to lift from criminality to legitimacy without any of his clients knowing the difference. Naturally, this doesn't work out. The Voysey Inheritance wouldn't be much of a play if it did.

And it wouldn't be much of a play if the financial skullduggery driving the action (which, I should warn you, is pontificated upon at length) weren't framed by a host of eclectic, electric characters brought to life by a larger and more talent-rich cast than any assembled in recent memory. Dennis Creaghan brays his best as the late Voysey's richest and most imperious customer. If possible, Jim Ballard brays even better as Major Booth Voysey, who works himself into an epic fit of moral indignation at the thought of having to sacrifice a bit of his allowance so Daddy's clients may be repaid. (The English used to bray a lot.) Stephen G. Anthony (as the elder Voysey's fey prodigal scion), Cliff Burgess (as his fey artist scion), John Felix (as a blustery client and clergyman), and Dan Leonard (as a slithery little lackey who nevertheless manages to ape the classiness of those around him) all share the stage, outshouting one another, and despite the crowded environs, they craft whole, clearly delineated, and perfectly believable characters whom you come to know in an instant and whose terrible greedy squealings haunt your car ride home.

There are women in The Voysey Inheritance as well, but with one exception, their parts are a lot less interesting than the boys'. Not that they're placeholders — it's just that, in Edwardian England, women didn't make many critical decisions in most households. (Or if they did, Harley Granville-Barker didn't know about it.) Lourelene Snedeker, Katherine Amadeo, and Kathryn Lee Johnston spend the play reacting to the men without doing much acting of their own. The exception is Marta Reiman, who is devastating as Alice Maitland, Edward Voysey's fiancée. Onstage, she and Hardcastle blend as perfectly as cream and coffee; she, ferocious, full of love and distress and anger and strength; he, confused, then hurt, then angry, then certain. They support each other, and from the audience, it's possible to feel the strength flowing between them. This is truest in the play's final scenes, when Hardcastle's Edward realizes that he'll take the fall his father avoided and that he's not ashamed of having run the scam himself to keep his clients' income rolling in. Even in this cultural and economic clime, it's hard not to like a guy who'll take a knock to stand on principle, whether his name is Edward or Clive or whatever.

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Brandon K. Thorp