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, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
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.