Violence and intrigue, with plot twists so unexpected that the reviewing press has been put on spoiler alert, define MR. HART & MR. BROWN, the latest work by renowned Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham, making its debut at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. Just back from the Galway Festival in Ireland for a run of THE OUTGOING TIDE (his award-winning play for Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, which had an acclaimed local premiere with the Philadelphia Theatre Company this spring), Graham here investigates the thin line between good and evil, and true nature versus invented persona, in this new Prohibition-era historical fiction.
Told through the eyes of The Local Historian (Peter DeLaurier) and based in the real-life story of two well-known American figures whose mysterious identities slowly come to be revealed, MR. HART & MR. BROWN is set in Homer, Nebraska in the 1920s. Richard “Two-Gun” Hart (Christopher Patrick Mullen), who hails from Brooklyn, is the revered sole lawman within a 300-mile radius. When Al Brown (Richard Ruiz), an antiques-dealer from Baltimore, drives his Duesenberg into town on a visit, the men’s explosive encounter is witnessed by Ambrose Healey (Michael Doherty), a young newspaper reporter who must decide if exposing their secrets is worth risking his life.
Graham’s engrossing character study examines the American mythology of public image, and of heroes and villains as projected in the media of films and the press in the early 20th century. The dialogue and narration (a device used here for the first time by Graham) are written with the playwright’s characteristic wit and insight, and his exploration of the psychology and nature of violent behavior provides much food for thought, as does the play’s underlying question: Can everyone be bought, and at what price?
As the elder historian and narrator, DeLaurier is reflective and amiable, as he recalls the incidents of the Roaring ‘20s for an unseen Ph.D. student in the 1960s, researching the topic for a doctoral dissertation. Mullen, Ruiz, and Doherty are well cast; each turns in a performance of great emotional range and expressiveness. Under the balanced direction of Pete Pryor, their tone changes instantaneously from cordial to comical to volatile, while remaining believable throughout. They portray their characters as complex human beings, filled with ambiguities; they are much more than the one-dimensional icons pigeon-holed by our popular culture.
The production’s artistic design, with set by Matt Saunders, costumes by Scott Anderson, lighting by Lily Fossner, and sound by Christopher Colucci, skillfully complements the story by establishing the mood of the Midwestern landscape during the period of sepia-toned photographs, black-and-white cowboy movies, western music, Indian reservations, and illicit moonshine. Though MR. HART & MR. BROWN will take you back to that earlier time, it will also leave you wondering if things have really changed that much in terms of our ability to construct a public persona through the manipulation of the media.
MR. HART & MR. BROWN
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by Pete Pryor
July 18-August 19, 2012
People’s Light & Theatre Company
39 Conestoga Road
Malvern, PA 19355
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