- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

Despite his Edwardian dress and Old World manners, Trenchard Voysey Sr. (John Ramsey) would be right at home with cronies in the purported questionable accounting practices of Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and the recently convicted Bernard Ebbers. You can just picture them all toasting their exploits and swapping anecdotes over a grotesquely expensive brandy.

In Harley Granville Barker’s 1905 play, “The Voysey Inheritance,” Voysey runs an august British investment firm instead of a mega corporation such as Tyco or WorldCom. His clients are pleased, his reputation spotless — except that Voysey, and his father before him, have been defrauding customers by secretly using their money for high-risk ventures. “Business nowadays is run on the lines of a confidence trick,” Voysey says, feeling no guilt whatsoever for his actions or his lavish lifestyle.

His son Edward (Eric Sheffer Stevens) is poised to inherit the firm — and all the corruption and deception that goes with it. Mr. Barker’s play details Edward’s efforts to put things right, and his ethical struggle whether it’s better to make small amends or to continue the legacy of cheating perpetuated by his kin.

Although the shady business dealings seem like something you would see on CNN, as a play, “The Voysey Inheritance,” directed with diligent straightforwardness by Irene Lewis, is as stale as yesterday’s Enron stock. Even with a new adaptation by dramaturg Gavin Witt, the play feels dated and lugubrious, with leaden clouds of expository dialogue delivered either at an office desk or a long dining room table.

Mr. Barker was a close friend and devotee of George Bernard Shaw, and they share a verbosity and love of social causes. However, Mr. Barker lacks Mr. Shaw’s rapier wit and far-reaching intelligence; in his hands, dialogue is preachy agitprop and socialist ideas more trite than true.

Part of the problem could be the character of Edward, who takes over when his father suddenly goes to that great bank vault in the sky. As written, Edward is humorless and grimly determined, which probably makes for a fine accountant but not a memorable protagonist.

Mr. Stevens plays him as a kindhearted soul with an aching conscience until you could just scream from all that goodness. The only time Mr. Stevens shows some life is in the scenes with his intended, Alice (his real-life wife Jenny Sheffer Stevens), which have a flirtatious spark and glow.

The elder Voysey doesn’t fare much better, coming across as a self-satisfied windbag and casually corrupt captain of industry. Mr. Ramsey plays him with much bluster and little charm, leaving you to wonder why clients and family alike found him so magnetic.

The sole lively male characters are Laurence O’Dwyer’s bravura turn as a rich, addlebrained older client and family friend who becomes hilariously unhinged when he discovers his wealth has been mishandled. Quite simply, Mr. O’Dwyer goes nuts, dropping his impeccable manners and high-class bearing to take numerous sucker punches at Edward, even giving him a surreptitious wallop with a Christmas basket. Rob Nagle also has some inspired moments as the conceited military man Major Booth Voysey.

For all their supposed wealth, the Voysey family is a frustrated, stifling lot, especially the women. The mother (Diane Kagan) is determinedly oblivious, her daughter Ethel (Kristen Sieh) is spoiled and petulant, Honor (Mercedes Herrero) has a regrettable haircut and is treated like an infant, and Beatrice (Carol Halstead) is nothing but a tiresome mouthpiece for Mr. Barker’s political views.

“The Voysey Inheritance” might have been controversial and provocative in 1905, but a century later, it’s a one-note diatribe, airless and devoid of humor and humanity.

**

WHAT: “The Voysey Inheritance” by Harley Granville Barker

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 5.

TICKETS: $10 to $60

PHONE: 410/332-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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