The Heiress is currently in a 14-week run at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway in New York City. This great period piece stars the usually luminous Jessica Chastain as mousy, albeit wealthy Catherine Sloper, the handsome Dan Stevens as her impoverished, soon-to-be suitor Morris Townsend, and the versatile David Strathairn as Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine’s distinguished, moneyed father.
This current production certainly has much (perhaps too much) to live up to — there are some exceptionally high altitude shoes to fill here … Jack in the Beanstalk couldn’t climb that high.
Based on the near perfect novella, “Washington Square,” written by one of America’s greatest authors, Henry James, it is a timeless story of unrealized love in all its forms, life changing choices, family secrets, unanswerable questions, and the meticulous social customs of an upper crust society at the turn of the 20th century. These well mannered folks are living graciously in what is still a charming pocket of NYC, downtown’s beloved Washington Square. It was inevitable that this exquisite novella morph into a dramatic theater production. And so in 1947, the great English actress, (and cinema’s original Eliza Doolittle), Wendy Hiller, and the ultimate English character actor, Basil Rathbone, played the leads in a meticulously written stage drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Their sharp stage adaptation followed with the landmark 1949 film “The Heiress.”
A brilliant four-star classic film version of the play (a rare exception of a movie equaling — perhaps even surpassing — its original book) stars the legendary Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-winning performance as Catherine, Montgomery Clift as her fortune-hunting suitor Morris, and Ralph Richardson as her disapproving father. The screenplay is pitch perfect, the performances iconic, and to add to its perfection, the great American composer, Aaron Copland, wrote the film score.
Another production hit the Broadway stage in 1976, this time starring the great stage actress, Jane Alexander, and the original musical “Man of La Mancha,” Richard Kiley. In 1995 the stars aligned in another Broadway production, which launched the great stage career of Cherry Jones, ably assisted in her star-making role with a remarkable performance by Philip Bosco as Dr. Sloper, and Jon Tenney (best known as Kyra Sedgwick’s co-star in the television series “The Closer”) as Morris. In Jones, a legendary actress of the theater was born.
I was fortunate to be at her inaugural performance, which was one for the ages. To paraphrase Dr. Sloper, “She dominated the role!” (I met Philip Bosco several months later and told him how magnificent he was as Dr. Sloper. He mentioned that most fans cite his performance as “Uncle Carmine” in “First Wives Club” as his claim to fame!)
The current Broadway production of “The Heiress” is “airless.” The usually magnificent Jessica Chastain is terribly miscast; a corpse has more life. For starters, asking her to become the homely Catherine is next to impossible despite the disheveled wig she wears. The audience has to care about Catherine and her chance at love and happiness; we need to root for her chance at love. However, Ms. Chastain’s cardboard, unmoving performance makes this impossible.
The real surprise here is the usually magnificent David Strathairn, who plays Dr. Sloper as if he was a Lincoln log. It’s like he never got “off book.” His performance is stiff, boring, and completely lacking any sense of the respected dominating demeanor that the character demands.
I was completely shocked by his flat delivery, and lack of facial expression and stage presence, especially in his big scenes when important truths come to light. Emotional sparks should be flying, yet by that point the audience is so uninvolved in the story, Hurricane Sandy couldn’t move us.
Dan Stevens (of “Downton Abbey” fame) tries valiantly to ignite a fire, but he’s far too pleasant, way too dimly affable to be considered a cunning gigolo with ulterior motives. The only spark here emanates from the fourth lead, the spot-on performance of Judith Ivey as the flighty, overt Aunt Lavinia. But wonderful as she is, she surely cannot resurrect the dead.
The only applause remaining is for the show’s perfect set design, which is admirable, as are the rest of the show’s production values, but certainly not enough to balance out the dead weight in the principal performances. Perhaps the actors were competing with the gracious brownstone drawing room that comprises this lovely set? Their performances are surely as wooden as the set’s furniture…but hands down, the furniture wins.
I was very much looking forward to this show. When I first heard of the casting, I thought Jupiter had aligned with Mars, and immediately purchased tickets. Within ten minutes of the opening, I was spiraling back to Earth totally stunned. I kept hoping the actors would garner some emotion as this timeless story moved forward, but there was simply no chemistry on stage between the players, no modulations in their presentation, either subtle or overt. You don’t realize nor appreciate the magnificent denouement of this story. If you yawn, which is inevitable, you’ll miss it.
When the character of Catherine muses that she may never again be in Washington Square, rather then feel a sense of compassion for her, you think, “Geez, let’s hope so… stay far away.” But there’s an upside here… it’s a limited run.WHERE: The Walter Kerr Theater from Nov 1, 2012 through Feb 10, 2013 West 48th Street New York, New York
Contributed by Joanne Theodorou