It should have that "ripped-from-the-headlines" feel. Indeed, to underscore the timeliness of Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance - a 1905 play about a legacy of corporate fraud - the program for Center Stage's production includes photos and write-ups of such marauding moguls as Enron's Kenneth L. Lay, Adelphia Communications' John Rigas and WorldCom's Bernard J. Ebbers.
And yet, director Irene Lewis' production (using a script adapted and streamlined by Center Stage resident dramaturg Gavin Witt) lacks the sting of those up-to-the-minute scandals.
The problem isn't the way the production looks. To the contrary, designer Allen Moyer's sets offer a stunning visual evocation of the lie on which the firm of Voysey and Son, family solicitors, has been built.
The walls of the solicitors' office are life-sized architectural drawings. These renderings contain elegant details - moldings, urns, even an elaborate fireplace. But they are two-dimensional, a mere facade, a sham. When the action moves to the dining room of the Voysey family manse, however, every luxurious element is realistically represented - the vaulted ceiling, the gigantic furniture, the looming oil portrait of the paterfamilias.
The contrast in the two settings makes the play's point unmistakably clear - the family's life of luxury has been possible only because of the Voyseys' sham business. The difficulty is that this visual juxtaposition is the most startling aspect of the production.
Granted, Eric Sheffer Stevens does a fine job portraying morally outraged Edward Voysey, who learns that his father - and grandfather before him - have systematically defrauded their clients and that he's expected to perpetuate the tradition. At the start of the play, Stevens' Edward appears to be in shock; he is bereft, sleep-deprived, heartbroken. As the play continues, Stevens depicts Edward as a man whose moral fiber is so thick, he wears it like a hair shirt.
Edward is a largely humorless character, and that typifies the script's chief shortcoming. Many of the characters are as two-dimensional as the architectural renderings in designer Moyer's office set.
This is most troubling in regard to Edward's father, the villain of Barker's domestic melodrama. Although we might have a fuller understanding of his character if the actor's diction were clearer, John Ramsey plays the senior Voysey as a gruff, snug, intractable fat cat; Voysey claims to have family feelings, but Ramsey's performance keeps them mostly hidden.
The thinness of the characters is especially evident in Edward's siblings. His brother, Booth (blustery Rob Nagle), is a blowhard, incapable of lowering his voice. Their unmarried sister, Honor (Mercedes Herrero in a hairstyle so unbecoming, it makes her resemble a witch), is a devoted stay-at-home daughter who's treated like a doormat. And their kid sister, Ethel (perky Kristen Sieh), is the simpering, spoiled baby of the family.
The women who married into - or who may marry into - this family have a little more depth, especially Edward's long-time sweetheart, Alice (played with intelligence and spunk by Jenny Sheffer Stevens, Eric's real-life wife). She's the only character whose actions seem fresh.
Barker's script is brimming with lines that, a century later, could be sound bites uttered by any number of shady corporate bigwigs (or politicians): "Why is it so hard for a man to see beyond the letter of the law?" or "I tell no unnecessary lies."
But instead of an aura of immediacy, The Voysey Inheritance feels creaky - unless of course, we've all become so inured to corporate malfeasance that the subject no longer has the power to shock. If so, this may be a pretty scary play after all.
The Voysey Inheritance
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Wednesday and May 25. Through June 5.