June 17, 1999

It is canny of the Mint Theater, at the end of a decade of stock market enchantment, to stage ”The Voysey Inheritance,” a 95-year-old play by the British actor and director Harley Granville-Barker. Few theatrical works so shrewdly raise profound questions about the role of ordinary morality in the making of money, and none in English does it with such elegance and wit.

The Voysey family is a collection of willful eccentrics worthy of Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. The money they all enjoy comes from Voysey & Son, a solicitors’ partnership run by the head of the family and his youngest son, Edward. At the outset Edward discovers that for 30 years his father has used money entrusted to the firm for specified investments to play the stock market and that at no time could the firm survive if all its clients tried to redeem their money.

The father says this practice began with his father, and he kept it up to save his father’s name and to try to achieve a balance at some point. But he dies suddenly, and when Edward sets out to restore the looted accounts, one client inevitably uncovers the manipulations, with social and legal consequences that make this play an intellectual thriller.

Actually, the dialogue makes it sound like a parlor comedy, and anyone following its arguments might think it is a Fabian socialist critique of capitalism — a not unreasonable conclusion since Granville- Barker was Shaw’s closest collaborator on productions of his plays and created many of Shaw’s most memorable leading male roles. But little here is didactic; the arguments made by most of the Voyseys for their cavalier use of other people’s wealth carry much more force than Edward’s doubts, and only one brief episode has a whiff of instruction.

That the play operates so successfully on many levels is not surprising; Granville-Barker’s prefaces to Shakespeare’s plays incited a revolution in production that rescued those dramas from two centuries of performance tradition that had almost smothered their intelligence and psychological penetration. The lines of “The Voysey Inheritance” are so sharp that even if they were read in a monotone a listener would be startled by the depths of character they reveal.

And there is nothing monotonal here. Under Gus Kaikkonen’s direction, George Morfogen as the senior Voysey is a generous, cheerful, guiltless thief trusted by everyone. With one exception, the male Voyseys, high in society, the army and the law, are so ridiculously confident that they make contempt a pure joy.

Edward (Kraig Swartz) grows almost imperceptibly from a scandalized young prig into a man who finds total loss is salvation, even though he has to be led to that vision by his cousin Alice (Sioux Madden), a selfish socialite transformed by disaster into a wise, tender lover. And as for George Booth, the family friend who brings down the house of Voysey, there is not a sillier, more delightful or vapid ninny in the literature, and Chet Carlin plays him as though he owns the part — as, for now, he deserves to.

At the end many people expressed surprise that they had been sitting enthralled for three hours. A playwright, and a company, can’t do much better than that.