The Heiress: Theater Review
Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens and Judith Ivey star in the Broadway revival of this 1947 play, adapted from the Henry James novel "Washington Square."
NEW YORK – The gasps of pleasure that accompanied the stage entrance of Dan Stevens in The Heiress on press night indicated a large contingent of Downton Abbey fans in the audience. And the actor is a savvy casting choice in a part that requires beguiling charm and sufficient sincerity to keep us wondering about his character’s motives. But the good news doesn’t extend to the actress in the title role of this plush Broadway revival. An underpowered Jessica Chastain, hampered by questionable directorial choices, dilutes the emotional impact of this nonetheless compelling melodrama.
Adapted by Ruth & Augustus Goetz from Henry James’ novel Washington Square, the 1947 play won a Tony Award for Cherry Jones in the celebrated 1995 revival, and an Oscar for Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler’s 1949 screen version.
Making her Broadway debut, Chastain is not a natural fit for Catherine, the socially awkward, plain-Jane daughter of wealthy widowed medic Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn) in mid-19th century New York. In her prolific burst of film work over the past two years, the lovely Juilliard-trained actress has impressed with her poise and delicacy, balancing fragility with quiet inner fortitude. But playing against type is less a problem in Chastain’s frustrating performance here than inconsistency of characterization.
From the start, her Catherine yoyos between self-possession and self-effacement, between eloquence and painfully inarticulate shyness, period formality and flat contemporary cadences. She makes it hard to get a handle on the character, let alone feel anything for the pallid creature. In the early scenes in particular, Chastain’s approach also seems too tethered to naturalistic-style screen acting, prompting attention to be drawn to the more vivid presences around her.
Much of this appears to some degree intentional on the part of director Moisés Kaufman. He presents Catherine as a damaged woman, crushed into permanent withdrawal by her father’s disregard for her. Even her doting Aunt Lavinia (the sublimely funny Judith Ivey) and other relatives share the opinion that Catherine is sweet but dull, lacking the conversational skills and grace that are a social requirement for women of the era.
As Catherine becomes more cruelly convinced that lovelessness is her destiny, Kaufman and Chastain hollow her out to the point where even her suppressed rage doesn’t register. We keep waiting and hoping for her to catch fire. But while there are affecting moments in the performance, the process by which she is turned to stone feels mechanical.
Kaufman is at his best as a director with contemporary plays like Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 33 Variations and I Am My Own Wife, which allow for stylized presentation and departures from realism. He seems constrained here by the conventionality of the drama, delivering a staging that’s more dutiful than incisive. It’s an accurate reading of a very Jamesian situation, but one in which the underlying passion and the shattering conclusion are muted.
That’s not to say the production fails to entertain; the play is too sturdily constructed a chestnut to be uninvolving. The design elements are sumptuous, from Derek McLane’s oppressively tasteful front parlor of heavy woods, with brown and burgundy tones, to Albert Wolsky’s elegant costumes and David Lander’s supple lighting. There’s also much to savor in the work of the generally fine cast.
As Morris Townsend, the cash-strapped gentleman whose ardent interest in Catherine causes her to blossom in a dizzying two-week courtship, Stevens is ideal. While Dr. Sloper pegs him as a gold-digging wastrel and is determined to open his daughter’s eyes to that view, Stevens brings such unsullied earnestness to the role that we want to believe in his honest intentions, just as he appears to want the same. Morris is so bewitched by the material comforts of the Slopers’ swanky home on fashionable Washington Square that he seems as much a victim of his desires as the architect of any calculated scheme.
Strathairn is also superb as Dr. Sloper, who takes his behavioral cues from his clinical profession. The insensitivity with which he treats his daughter makes it a challenge to find a glimmer of sympathy in this joyless man – as starchy and severe as his tall hat and topcoat. But Strathairn deftly reveals the pathos of the doctor, who has never been able to forgive Catherine for the death of his beloved wife in childbirth. It’s his tragedy as much as Catherine’s that his chilliness has caused her to grow up into the exact opposite of her vivacious mother.
Ivey, as always, is a consummate pro. Without any undue scene-stealing, she is a constant delight to watch. Her good-hearted Lavinia is a giggling, frivolous woman, slightly dim and a shameless flirt; even her widow’s weeds are covered in silly flounces and ruffles. But her girlish swooning over the romance in the air between Catherine and Morris masks a touching vein of melancholy. “Life can be very long for a woman alone,” she warns her niece.
This is juicy, high-toned melodrama, and for the most part, stylishly executed. It’s possible that, as the run progresses, Chastain might find more secure footing, placing a bolder stamp on the central role to capture the spark that’s currently missing.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 10)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey, Molly Camp, Kieran Campion, Virginia Kull, Mairin Lee, Ben Livingston, Dee Nelson, Caitlin O’Connell
Director: Moisés Kaufman
Playwrights: Ruth & Augustus Goetz
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music: Peter Golub
Presented by Paula Wagner, Roy Furman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Luigi Caiola/Rose Caiola, Jim Herbert, Ted Liebowitz, Stacey Mindich, Jill Furman, Ricardo Hornos, Jon B. Platt, Eric Schmidt, Margo Lion/Rachel Weinstein, Jujamcyn Theaters