Just why the Kennedy Center would elect to revive "The Late Christopher Bean" is one of the tinier mysteries facing mankind today. But not all mysteries are sublime, and there it is -- Sidney Howard's 1932 tired comedy, once a favorite of high school drama classes, perched right on the stage of the Eisenhower Theater, where it clearly has no intention of budging for the next five weeks.
The production, the second to result from the continuing financial partnership between CBS and the Kennedy Center, stars Jean Stapleton, a performer who enjoys the good will of a large ticket-buying public. It is directed by her husband, William Putch, who certainly has no interest in killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But neither weary play nor stodgy revival allows the star to do much beyond indulge in a variation of the warm discombobulation she patented over the seasons on television's "All in the Family."
Howard's script takes place in the bosom of the Haggetts, a small-minded Yankee family, residing somewhere outside of Boston. As Abby, the family's unappreciated maid, Stapleton spends as much of her time offstage in the kitchen as she does on stage in the living and dining rooms that William Ritman has designed with a fine understanding of the fussy tastes of their occupants.
That family once showed some passing kindness to a poor wretch of an artist, the titular Christopher Bean, although it has been somewhat cavalier about the canvases he left behind, using them to plug leaks in the chicken house and the attic. Some time after the curtain goes up, though, it becomes apparent from the curious stream of callers at the Haggett residence that the paintings are now worth a pretty penny, and the sale of just one of them could finance a vacation trip to Miami. At the mere prospect, the portly Dr. Haggett (Pat Hingle), his peremptory wife (Olive Dunbar) and his elder, decidedly unmarriageable, daughter (Ellen Tobie) are transformed into monuments of covetousness. Only Abby, simple soul that she is, appreciates Bean's paintings for their own sake and resists the family's urge to go for the boodle.
In the third of three unaccelerated acts, playwright Howard will permit Abby her moment of sweet triumph, but it's a long time coming, and up to then the characters don't have all that much to share with us. Once they reveal themselves as mean-spirited, grasping creatures, eager to make a deal, they have nowhere else to go. And don't look to Abby for comic salvation. Just when you need her blunt good sense most, she's generally trotting off to answer the doorbell, setting the table or packing her trunk offstage for a trip to Chicago. In what is presumably a star vehicle, Stapleton often appears to be occupying the rumble seat.
Still, she provides the few homely pleasures to be gleaned from the evening. As her employer notes haughtily, she has "not a mite of style or dash about her." But Stapleton finds integrity in plainness itself, and never so much as when she is recollecting the true legacy of Christopher Bean. He taught her to see the old covered bridge, even though she'd looked at it hundreds of times before; made her realize that snow "ain't white, but all kinds of colors"; and informed her that "cobalt blue" was the correct term for the tint on the dinner plates. Opening her eyes in remembered wonder and momentarily stilling the hands that have been fluttering at her sides like swallows, she says, "He taught me that a man can get drunk and still be the same -- only more so." That may well be the evening's best line; there is, Lord knows, little competition.
Despite his size -- and he has become a fleshy mound -- a red-faced Hingle makes Dr. Haggett, the patriarch of this unappetizing clan, all too petty and insignificant. I rather liked Dunbar as his wife, however, and especially the way her eyes, popping in indignation, appear to be extensions of the polka-dot motif on her dresses. Most of the other performers -- Alexander Scourby as an art critic, Timothy Landfield as a house painter with aspirations and Salem Ludwig as a slippery art dealer -- are straight out of summer stock, caricatures at best, but without the flash of invention or spirit that might justify our taking a second look.
Worse are Glynnis O'Connor, the younger daughter and a strong contender for the year's dullest ingenue, even though the year is new, and Kevin Tighe, utterly bland as another scurrilous art merchant. None of them is helped by Putch's direction, which guides the play along the obvious paths, rather like a farmer desultorily prodding his cattle back to the barn.
Why oh why, when there are decent American plays crying out for revival, has the Kennedy Center settled for one so innocuous? As a portrait of the crusty, acquisitive New England temperament, "The Late Christopher Bean" is a Yankee doodle, and not a dandy. As a tale of comeuppance, it is sluggardly and pious. As a period piece, it is, frankly, negligible.
There is, however, a most salutary moral. As I understood it: Virtue is its own reward, but just to be on the safe side, it's wisest not to scoff at the splotches and squiggles of modern art.
THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN. By Sidney Howard. Directed by William Putch; sets, William Ritman; costumes, Arnold S. Levine; lighting, Martin Aronstein. With Jean Stapleton, Pat Hingle, Alexander Scourby, Glynnis O'Connor, Salem Ludwig, Ellen Tobie, Timothy Landfield, Kevin Tighe, Olive Dunbar. At the Eisenhower Theater through Feb. 27.