Entertainment » Theatre

The Heiress

by Joseph Pisano
Contributor
Monday Nov 12, 2012
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Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens
Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens  (Source:Joan Marcus)

What fundamentally sinks the current revival of "The Heiress," is that, of the principal actors, only Judith Ivey realizes she is in a production of "The Heiress." Under the barely discernible direction of Moisés Kaufman, the rest of the big-name talent seems adrift, as if nobody told them the name of the play they were to put on, until just before the curtain rises.

It begs the question of whether their strangely inappropriate performances, which form the work’s triangular heart, all went wrong together, or if one actor’s misguided interpretation created a negative cascade effect. Regardless, as Ivey and a strong supporting ensemble prove, the text is not the problem.

Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, "The Heiress" is a 1947 adaptation of the Henry James novel "Washington Square," one that takes heartfelt, and necessary, liberties with its chilly mid-nineteenth century source material (which James himself did not much like). Addressing Brooks Atkinson’s major criticism of the original Broadway production -- that "Washington Square" "cannot be dramatized" -- Goetz, according to her "New York Times" obituary, responded, "We hadn’t put the novel onstage. It was a different story -- the daughter’s finding herself through her tragedy."

Unfortunately, as Catherine Sloper, the play’s naïve and paralytically shy heroine, Jessica Chastain apparently does not understand what this tragedy entails. While decked out in a series of Albert Wolsky’s lavish, period-inspired dresses, she fashions her mannered take on the character out of shallow gestures and a dull monotone. There is pain in Catherine’s words, but Chastain never connects to it, which means the audience cannot either.

A challenging role, it requires an actor who can transition from extreme diffidence to flinty resolve. Chastain struggles mightily with this assignment. Her performance, ironically, only comes alive toward the end of the play, when Catherine is essentially dead inside, after having been devastated by a couple of emotional sucker-punches. But because Chastain equates Catherine’s earlier introversion with doltishness, Catherine’s fate feels less painful than it should.

Of course, Chastain is acting in the shadows of two extraordinary talents: Cherry Jones, who won a Tony for the part in 1995, and Olivia de Havilland, who starred in the 1949 film version of the play and earned an Academy Award for her efforts. Perhaps Chastain’s mistake was trying to differentiate her performance too much from theirs, not realizing that sometimes it is permissible to just copy the right answer.

There is pain in Catherine’s words, but Jessica Chastain never connects to it, which means the audience cannot either.

As Catherine’s supercilious father, Dr. Austin Sloper, the usually reliable David Strathairn does not help Chastain’s cause. For whatever reason, Strathairn softens his character’s rebukes of Catherine, undercutting the explanation for why Dr. Sloper’s only child is a friendless wallflower, on the verge of becoming an old maid. To be sure, diminishing Dr. Sloper’s imperiousness is a brave acting choice, but also entirely wrong. It is as if Strathairn does not grasp that the play has two villains, and he is portraying one of them.

A wealthy widower, Dr. Sloper has provided his daughter with every material comfort, but no human ones. He has given her a beautiful home on the toniest block in New York, and, upon his own death, ensured her opulent lifestyle in perpetuity, with a guaranteed inheritance of thirty thousand dollars per year (close to a million bucks in today’s currency).

But financial security is not without its downside for the socially awkward, physically plain, and unwed Catherine. It makes her a tempting target for Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens), a cultured lothario without money or the inclination to acquire it honestly. Sniffing out Morris’s greedy intentions, Dr. Sloper tries to end the brash young man’s aggressive courtship of the vulnerable Catherine, largely through brutal honesty aimed squarely at her.

Sapping most of the drama out of the proceedings, the audience is also never in doubt about Morris’s true feelings for Catherine. In fact, Stevens, best known from the addictive British television show "Downton Abbey," might as well be wearing a shirt that reads, "Beware, I am a fortune hunter! Lock up your daughters!"

It is obviously not the right approach for the character, since if "The Heiress" is going to stir our deepest sympathies for Catherine, Morris needs to beguile us, too. Playing opposite de Havilland in the 1949 film, Montgomery Clift established his acting reputation by accomplishing exactly this feat. Admittedly, almost anyone would suffer in comparison to Clift, but Stevens, who comes across as nothing more than a sinister Howdy Doody, is particularly disappointing in the role.

Thankfully, Ivey turns up throughout the play, as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s foolishly romantic aunt and incompetent chaperone, to remind the audience, if nothing else, that "The Heiress" is worth remounting. For her deft performance, which concludes on an affectingly melancholic note, Ivey should receive some sort of special reward -- like, maybe, she can take the stage one night with the understudies for Catherine, Dr. Sloper and Morris.

"The Heiress" runs through Feb. 10 at The Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. For info or tickets, call 212-239-6200 (New York metro area), 800-432-7250 (outside of the New York metro area), or visit the show’s official website.

Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.

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