Cynthia Darlow, James Murtaugh, Kate Middleton,
Greg McFadden, James Prendergast, and Bob Ari
in The Late Christopher Bean
(© Stephen Kunken)
Cynthia Darlow, James Murtaugh, Kate Middleton,
Greg McFadden, James Prendergast, and Bob Ari
in The Late Christopher Bean
(© Stephen Kunken)
The Late Christopher Bean, Sidney Howard's 1932 comedy now being presented by TACT at the Beckett Theatre, is admittedly old-fashioned. So what? Under Jenn Thompson's warm and tidy direction, it's loaded with laughs; it has nine carefully articulated parts for the accomplished actors assembled here to enliven; and it contains genuine plot surprises right up to the deeply satisfying curtain line. What more do you need?

The play accusingly yet forgivingly looks at what happens to the Haggett family when the prospect of making a pile of dough suddenly looms. Some years before the play begins, an impoverished artist named Christopher Bean was given room and board by hard-working Dr. Haggett (James Murtaugh).

During Bean's stay, neither the doctor nor his wife (Cynthia Darlow) or his daughters, Susan (Jessiee Datino) and Ada (Kate Middleton), thought much of the boarder's output. Indeed, it was only appreciated by no-nonsense family retainer Abby (Mary Bacon, giving a beautifully etched portrait of decency). But the disdain that led to Bean's left-behind work apparently being destroyed is now gone as the Haggetts learn Bean has acquired a reputation as a great American painter.

On that same hectic day, two fast-talking art-world flim-flammers, Tallant (Greg McFadden) and Rosen (Robert Ari) arrive separately to take advantage of the uninformed Haggetts -- as does Manhattan's foremost art critic, who comes to set them straight on the value of the works the now-deceased Bean abandoned.

That's when easygoing Dr. Haggett and some of his clan transform into avarice personified. Only loyal Ada and Susan -- who has announced to her parents' dismay that she intends to marry local artist wannabe Warren Creamer (Hunter Canning) -- don't instantly turn into ugly, money-grubbing people.

Howard's portrait of greed is worthy of a Moliere satire, and Murtaugh grabs the role of Dr. Haggett and makes hay with it. By the time Haggett understands that tens of thousands of dollars are available to him if he can locate the missing paintings, Murtaugh's entire body is vibrating.

Granted, Howard's work is infused with the sort of human sentiment too often considered quaintly naïve today. Yet, there's no denying that two of Howard's underlying and interlocking themes -- greed and the vicissitudes of the art world -- are hardly dated. Until they are, comedies the high caliber of The Late Christopher Bean will remain hilariously pertinent.