The Voysey Inheritance
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
December 7, 2006
David Mamet's new adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker's play, The Voysey Inheritance, is outstanding. In turning his attention to the 1905 classic, Mamet has written one of his very best plays, a timely and powerful examination of greed, apathy, and the other things besides money a family can inherit from its ancestors. Under David Warren's superb direction, The Voysey Inheritance gets a well-acted, sumptuous-looking, first-class production from Atlantic Theater Company.
Set in England at the turn of the 20th century, the play focuses on the Voysey family, whose vast wealth has been built through several generations of solicitors (or, investment bankers, in today's parlance). The family business—run by patriarch Mr. Voysey (no first name) and one of his four sons, Edward—despite being highly profitable, is soon put into jeopardy when Edward discovers that his father has been embezzling money from their clients for years (a Voysey tradition, it seems, handed down from father to son). Mr. Voysey reveals that their family's large fortune has been assembled from the pilfered funds, and that any attempt to repay their clients would bankrupt the business. Moralistic Edward is then faced with a daunting and impossible choice: keep the status quo intact and continue to cook the books; or, expose his father and send his family into poverty.
Granville-Barker would have enough to build his play upon if that were the only challenge facing his protagonist. But, the author ups the ante by killing off the elder Voysey after the play's opening scene, thus leaving Edward in sole control of the family business. At first, it looks like his father's death might make things easier for Edward, but, the audience soon learns that he can only look like the villain in his father's absence. Mr. Voysey was a beloved and much-admired figure in his community, a man considered to be loyal, friendly, and honest, and certainly not someone who would intentionally ruin his family. Edward, on the other hand, is treated with cool respect, even by his relatives. He is tolerated, but not well-liked. No one considers him to be half the man his father was.
Edward is faced with another dilemma when it becomes clear that his family might not want their comfortable life tampered with. Given the choice between giving up their respective inheritances for the poorhouse, or ensuring their futures at the expense of their father's (now Edward's) clients, for some, the decision is a no-brainer. Their justification is that they, personally, didn't steal any money, so why should they give any back? The moral high ground is tough to reach and hold onto for poor, embattled Edward.
Mamet, a master of moral conflict, has a field day with The Voysey Inheritance. He keeps painting Edward into corner after corner until it looks as if there is surely no good way out for his protagonist. If Edward exposes his father's crime, not only will his family be left penniless, but he will go to jail, leaving behind his doting but long-neglected fiancée, Alice. If he keeps Mr. Voysey's secret, however, Edward might also be able to restore his clients' accounts without them ever knowing. Doing so would weigh heavily on him, though, because it wouldn't be totally honest (he yearns to come clean so he won't have to be complicit in any way with his father's wrongdoing), but it might easier than getting his family to part with their share of the money. In this regard, The Voysey Inheritance shows us how simple it might be for Edward to stray from his righteous path: by keeping everything under wraps, he could just as easily continue his father's thievery instead of paying back the money—a sobering (and, unfortunately, relevant) thought in the age of the Enron and WorldCom financial scandals.
Derek McLane's gorgeous wood-paneled set, rife with ornate furniture and countless oil paintings, perfectly embodies what's at stake for the Voyseys (their entitled lifestyle). Director Warren keeps coiling the play's dramatic tension more and more tightly, as the walls close in on Edward, until The Voysey Inheritance reaches its cathartic and surprising conclusion. The wonderful Peter Maloney is as good as ever as George Booth, one of the firm's defrauded clients. Samantha Soule is soulfully warm as the long-suffering Alice. Fritz Weaver and Steven Goldstein are scene-stealingly exceptional in their small-but-crucial roles as Mr. Voysey and Edward's assistant, Mr. Peacey, respectively. C.J. Wilson brings a naïve, blustery swagger to the role of Major Booth Voysey, one of Edward's siblings. And, as Edward, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers an excellent performance that fuels the production with its fierce stoicism.
The Voysey Inheritance is rich, compelling theatre that leaves one completely satisfied. Mamet impresses once again, this time with his ability to play successfully within the confines of someone else's play while retaining his own caustic tautness. His craft has rarely been this strong, and it makes me eager to see what he comes up with next.