Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Review: 'Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown"

Playwright Bruce Graham's newest, in a world premiere at People's Light & Theatre, is a terrific piece taken from a footnote in history, with a cast to match. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro says it's bound to have legs after its run here.

Review: 'Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown"

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Christopher Patrick Mullen (left) as Mr. Hart, Michael Doherty as a reporter and Richard Ruiz as Mr. Brown in the People's Light & Theatre production of "Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown."

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

The only thing I hate about Bruce Graham’s new play, Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown, is that I can't really tell you much about it without giving away its several surprises. And if you see it at people Light & Theatre Company, where it's getting a remarkable world premiere and is an engrossing story for a summer's night, you shouldn’t either.

Let everyone be as pleasantly surprised as you’ll be. Graham, the prolific Philadelphia-based playwright who gets better with each new work, takes Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown straight from a footnote to American history — like many footnotes, quirky and hard-to-believe and about a character well-known for a time and now completely faded from the national psyche.

His name, or one of his names, was Richard J. Hart, but don’t go Googling him until after the play because I’ll tell you everything I can without turning Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown into a history lesson or revealing so much, it would be like an act of plagiarism against Bruce Graham’s finely constructed work.

Richard Hart, a focus of this play, is not to be confused with Richard Hart, the actor-hero of silent Westerns. The actor was a hero to the other man, who took his name when he showed up in Nebraska, in a hamlet called Homer, and in short order became a character — a federal agent in Prohibition’s ’20s who fought bootleggers and Indians and who looked the part in full Wild West attire, two pistols at his side. “Two- Gun Hart” was his handle and the little weekly the Homer Star played up his bravery (mostly true, it appears) and his appearance (all true).

But Hart had a sensational secret, fully rooted on the criminal side of Prohibition and involving a world-known figure. The secret meant that to protect his lifestyle and career, Hart had to construct a stunning structure of lies. And he lived within that fragile edifice about four decades until he consciously destroyed it.

Interested? Who wouldn't be. Graham must have known, when he decided to unearth Richard Hart, that the man was ripe for the stage — and he handles Hart’s story with respect, providing just enough fiction to make the play a play. But he leaves Hart’s essence intact, or at least I believe he does from everything I’ve managed to read about Hart. Graham is also fortunate to have the talented Pete Pryor, People’s Light’s new associate artistic director, to stage the play with a nimble sense of tension on Matt Saunders’ campsite set in the woods.

The superb cast spins Graham’s yarn with a grasp of the characters that results in rich, nuanced acting: the terrific Christopher Patrick Mullen as Hart, in an interpretation of a calm, meticulous authority figure that is totally convincing; an explosive but vulnerable Richard Ruiz playing a man called Mr. Brown, who says he’s a Baltimore antiques dealer but appears to be more; Michael Doherty as a young reporter for the Homer Star who learns terrifyingly that getting close to a news source has its downside, and Peter DeLaurier as a historian helping an unseen doctoral student research Hart.

And that is all I’ll tell you, except to say that it’s not even half the story. Graham has been busy; his recent play The Outgoing Tide finished Philadelphia Theatre Company’s season, was produced in Ireland and opens the Delaware Theatre Company this fall in a production headed Off-Broadway. Look for Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown to have likewise muscular legs.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown: Through August 19 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $25-$45. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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