The Heiress Review On Broadway
At the beginning of “The Heiress,” the heartbreaking story of an abandoned love, Jessica Chastain descends the staircase of a sumptuous mansion in a dazzling red dress and a glorious smile – and right away, we see the problem with the fifth Broadway production of this celebrated play, which opens tonight at the Walter Kerr.
Chastain plays Catherine Sloper, a woman whose mother, a vivacious beauty, died giving birth to her. The death embittered Catherine’s father Dr. Sloper (David Strathairn) against her. He compares her unfavorably to her mother, seeing Catherine as awkward, inarticulate and unattractive. So when Catherine is wooed by handsome and dashing suitor Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens), Dr. Sloper assumes Mr. Townsend can only be after her money.
As Catherine, Chastain, making her Broadway debut, has effected a remarkable transformation from the role for which she is best-known, Celia Foote
, the clichéd but appealing blonde bombshell with the heart of gold in The Help. But she doesn’t go far enough.
Chastain is in a long line of beauties who have impersonated plain Janes. The former fashion model Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing buck-toothed serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster; the former fashion model Halle Berry won her Oscar for playing a downtrodden, makeup-free mother in Monster’s Ball. Fashion model to “monster” seems an assured path to winning over the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Fashion models can make a rag look like a princess’s gown. There is a certain type of person who does the reverse. They may be good-hearted and intelligent, but they are no more graceful than a platypus. That is how I view Catherine Sloper, an impression helped along by my good fortune in having seen Cherry Jones play the part in the last revival of “The Heiress” on Broadway. When Jones as Catherine descended that staircase wearing a beautiful red dress, her deportment was so awkward that you cringed for her. Having seen Cherry Jones in other plays, I have no doubt this was just exquisite acting – and possibly also a clever costume designer.
Chastain, who was never a model (though she was recently “named” an “ambassadress” for a new perfume), seems to have a natural physical grace, which she apparently can’t turn off while playing Catherine. Yes, she is shy, literal-minded and blunt-spoken; we see the pain in her face while attempting to be sociable. But her acting is largely limited to her facial expressions. Her body tells a different story.
Chastain’s beauty and grace throw the delicate dynamic of “The Heiress” out of whack. At its best, “The Heiress” offers the audience something of a subtle tug-of-war for our affection: Is Morris Townsend just a cad, or is his interest in her money accompanied by an eagerness to make her happy? Is Dr. Sloper legitimately protective of his daughter as well as insufficiently impressed with her good qualities? In this production, Catherine’s father is not just disappointed in Catherine; he seems delusional about her. Morris Townsend’s motives seem clear-cut: Catherine is rich, single, pleasant and pretty; who wouldn’t want to marry her?
It takes an intense willingness to overlook the miscasting of Chastain in order to gain maximum pleasure from director Moises Kaufman’s other choices. Derek McLane’s set is elegant in its rich hues and delicious in its details. Albert Wolsky’s costumes and David Lander’s lighting take us back to mid-19th-century New York. Dan Stevens is nearly as dashing and personable here as when he plays the dreamboat Matthew Crawley in the BBC TV series Downton Abbey.
It seems the right choice not to make Morris Townsend a blatant schemer, which is evident not just from Stevens’ performance but in the script for “The Heiress,” written in the 1940’s by Ruth and August Goetz. On the script is the information that their play is “suggested” by Washington Square, the novel by Henry James, a curiously weak attribution, since the plot, characters and indeed whole swaths of dialogue are taken directly from the book. But there are substantial changes – most noticeably in the more dramatic ending, but most significantly in some of the characterizations. One of these is Morris Townsend. Another is Catherine’s aunt, Mrs. Penniman. In the novel, Aunt Lavinia is a meddlesome widow so taken with the romantic possibilities of the courtship that her involvement becomes pernicious. She is no less a meddlesome but a more benevolent figure in “The Heiress,” especially as played by Judith Ivey, who is the stand-out in the cast, a subtle and entertaining blend of busybody and what we would now call a support system. However worthwhile her performance, it says something about the imbalance of this production of “The Heiress” that the cheerleading widow is the character with whom we most identify.
At the Walter Kerr (219 West 48th Street, NYC)
by Ruth and Augustus Goetz “suggested by the novel by Henry James, Washington Square”
Directed by Moses Kaufman
Set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Albert Wolsky, lighting by David Lander
Cast: Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey, Molly Camp, Kieran Campion, Virginia Kull, Dee Nelson, Caitlin O’Connell
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission
Buy tickets to The Heiress
“The Heiress” is scheduled to run through February 10, 2013.
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