PASSING THE PURSE STRINGS Colonna and Hodge.
David Mamet has always had a professional fascination with confidence men who pretend to be businessmen, thus his 2006 adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 play The Voysey Inheritance, being staged by 2nd Story Theatre through April 11 and directed by Ed Shea.
Two years later, the arrest of Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff for running a Ponzi scheme on trusting clients — successfully for several decades — demonstrated Mamet’s ob-servation that the worlds of high finance and sophisticated swindling are sometimes one and the same.
As a solicitor, Mr. Voysey (Bob Colonna) handles the finances of various British upper crust families. (Oddly, all here have no such accents.) The relationship is that of Victorian pro-priety rather than proper business, so the accounts are never audited, an act that would be an insult to honor.
Things have been going along smoothly at the firm for three generations until, in a scene-one confrontation, his son and partner Edward (Jeff Hodge), having gone over the books in depth for the first time, confronts the patriarch with what he has found. Clients have been getting their expected returns, but the individual accounts are a jumble, with no straight lines from in-come to out-go.
As the elder Mr. Voysey patiently explains, he inherited this financial juggling act from his own father, who in order to keep the firm from bankruptcy started manipulating accounts. Voysey has continued doing so, and now that he is getting on in years he invites his son to go into the real family business: maintaining the financial hoax. “Oh, why is it so hard for a man to see beyond the letter of the law?” Edward’s father asks, baffled. “Judge by the result!” Chillingly, in a moment of blind self-reflection, he declares: “I tell no unnecessary lies.”
This hasn’t been a classic Ponzi scheme, in which new clients with new money are constantly sought in order to trickle out returns to earlier clients, most of whose equity has been drained away. As long as not too many want to take all their money out, such a system can succeed. No, while Voysey accepts new clients, his main profit is from successful speculation, which he uses to support this house of cards.
The drama here centers around Edward, and we next see him a year later, surrounded by brothers and sisters after their father’s funeral. He has been marching in place regard-ing the firm’s illegalities, keeping himself in a legal limbo in which he might not be prosecuted, at least not too seriously, if the circumstances come to light.
He tells the assembled family what has been going on, that their doting paterfamilias has been a crook. Their mother (Joan Batting) knew all along that something fishy was happening; smiling, she doesn’t care to hear details. The matter of honor is pushed forward as a concern in this Victorian context. (Ironically, Honor also is the name of one of Voysey’s daughters.) Major Booth Voysey (Michael A. Locicero), who as a military man should be the most honorable, is more concerned with public exposure. He excuses their father’s actions as a noble effort to redress the error of their grandfather.
This microcosm of British society finds their moral and financial interests at odds. One family friend who stands to lose half his fortune makes a blackmail threat but convolutedly rationalizes the offer as being generous. The family minister, who also stands to gain, adds scriptural footnotes to that chop-logic.
Edward learns from his father’s smugly conspiring clerk Peacey (Jonathan Jacobs) that at one point Mr. Voysey had the books balanced and could have gone straight, giving the firm a new life with no financial chicanery. But profitably cutting corners proved too tempting. Edward has to make a similar decision. Will he publicly announce the sham, re-maining legally and morally upstanding but ruining clients, or stoop to continuing it and work on balancing the books once more?
Privately, Edward’s love interest, Alice Maitland (Lara Maynard), passes on a joking but perceptive observation from her scalawag guardian, that she has not earned her own wealth so she must not resent “any enterprising person” who tries to get it from her.
In that mood, The Voysey Inheritance has a surprising but plausibly happy ending. The moral of the story becomes something like: if the Bible says that the poor will always be with us, so will the rich. Live with it.