The Late Christopher Bean
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
November 6, 2009
The Late Christopher Bean is a charming little show. It's the story of a Massachusetts country doctor, Dr. Haggett (James Murtaugh), living somewhere outside Boston with his wife (Cynthia Darlow) and two daughters. Years ago, Dr. Haggett took in and treated a sickly young artist, some fellow named Bean, who was too poor to pay his bill—so instead he gave the doctor some of his paintings just before he died. The paintings weren't quite to the doctor's taste, however, so the family stowed the canvases in the barn, occasionally using one to patch a leaky roof or drafty window.
Now it's ten years later, and suddenly the doctor receives a telegram from a New York art collector—Bean is now the toast of the art world, and the collector heard Dr. Haggett might have some of Bean's works he might buy?....Soon a parade of guests come with the same goal, from the oily Mr. Rosen (Bob Ari), one of the first dealers to visit the family, to Davenport (James Prendergast), an impassioned art critic devoting himself to popularizing Bean. Then there's the fellow who SAYS he's Davenport (Greg McFadden), who has rather a different agenda.
...Now if the family could only find the paintings. The only one they can find belongs to Abby (Mary Bacon), the family's long-term maid—but she doesn't want to sell.
The script, originally produced in 1932, is especially timely with its critique of personal greed and of art as investment. Dr. Haggett frequently chides himself that his "greed" is making him foolish, only to give in each time a new telegram arrives offering an even higher price for Bean's work. Mrs. Haggett and their daughter Ada (Kate Middleton) also succumb; the only ones with cool heads seem to be Abby and Susan Haggett (Jessiee Datino), who prefers the work of her beau, aspiring artist Warren (Hunter Canning).
The tone director Jenn Thompson takes throughout is more gentle mockery than cutting satire. The show begins with some cozy family scenes, and as the speculators come calling we start approaching screwball comedy. However, the tone never quite reaches the state of zany panic the script calls for; Murtaugh's doctor seems strangely calm in the midst of the storm. He's pitch-perfect in moments when Dr. Haggett is supposed to be juuuuuust barely keeping his cool; in one entrance, he got a laugh just by walking in the door, with meticulous dignity covering over a hilariously rumpled appearance. Still, seeing the Doctor really panic once or twice would have made his suppressed-panic even funnier for me.
The real heart of the show, though—in more ways than one—is Bacon's Abby. As the Haggetts go to greater—and meaner—lengths to get the Bean work she owns away from her, Abby gradually and touchingly reveals just how personal a connection she has to it. Bacon plays Abby with an honest forthrightness that finally puts Dr. Haggett to shame; the scenes with Dr. Haggett and Abby are absolutely perfect, and the very last moment of the play—where Haggett redeems himself with a single gesture—is touching in its simplicity.