The Art of Greed

2nd Story's Late Christopher Bean
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 14, 2010

FAMILY FEUD Arsenault, Crist, and Oakes | Photo: RICHARD W. DIONNE, JR.

There’s nothing like a good swindle story, especially when you can trust that, in the end, the bad guys will be collared and the virtuous will be rewarded. Cued by its amiable humor, that is the implicit understanding we get in Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean, directed by Ed Shea at 2nd Story Theatre (through August 1).

It was first performed at the beginning of the Great Depression, so concern for money sets the stage. Dr. Milton Haggett (F. William Oakes) is a simple country doctor who lives with his family on the outskirts of Boston and worries that many of his poor patients are not able to pay him and that many of those who can aren’t.

His wife and two daughters are by various turns deferential and defiant. Hanna (Gloria Crist), his wife, and their eldest daughter Ada (Elise Arsenault) want to vacation in Miami Beach, where the tide of wealthy bachelors will increase her chances of grabbing a husband. Dr. Haggett shudders at the proposed expense. It’s winter in Boston, but why not try the same thing with local boys, he jokes: “Invite ’em in, put on your swimming suit.”

The soon-established aspiration of younger daughter Susan (Erin Sheehan) is simple and inexpensive to a fault: to marry Warren (John Wright), a poor handyman who is hanging paper in their house. He has a talent for painting more than walls, as he demonstrates with several paintings he gives them.

For a family with little interest in art, there sure is a lot of it hanging around. Even their maid, Abby (Emily Lewis), has a portrait of herself in her room, done by Christopher Bean, a former boarder who died 10 years before, of the requisite consumption, of course, being an artist. The family has other work by him, consigned to such places as the attic, the barn, and the back of a buttercup painting that Ada dabbed for fun. Bean’s modern art style, with blue inexplicably making a hand look like a paint rag, seems slapdash to them.

The first of three New York art critics or dealers who arrive calls himself Maxwell Davenport (Jeffrey Church) and claims to be Bean’s best friend. It’s no spoiler to reveal that he is a swindler, because unfortunately Church is allowed to overplay him as an obvious, all but mustachio-twirling phony, instead of letting the suspicion dawn on us. He claims to be there to pay his dead friend’s debts, and the $100 he presses into Dr. Haggett’s hands all but makes him one of the family. If only, he suggests, he could have any of the paintings by Bean that they have lying around unappreciated, his grief would be assuaged. Abby, the maid, is suspicious, but the rest remain gullible.

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