Much of 19th-century American literature is about self-denial. The Puritan ethic that dominated American thought for two centuries taught people to recoil from new wealth. "The Heiress," based on Henry James' "Washington Square," is about a woman whose wealth forces her into self-renunciation as a way of triumphing over a meanspirited father and a suitor who may or may not be a fortune hunter.
If self-denial is quite foreign to the contemporary American mood, so is the concept of the well-made play. The combination of the two makes "The Heiress" as exotic a spectacle as New York has seen in years. Gerald Gutierrez' production begins hesitantly, but, because Cherry Jones gives such a compelling performance as Catherine Sloper, the title character, the play becomes increasingly absorbing and moving as the evening progresses.
Jones makes a thrilling first entrance by fairly flying down the staircase at the back of John Lee Beatty's unusually handsome set. The high spirits evident in her descent are soon contradicted by her father's low estimation of her social gifts. Soon we see that self-absorption and mistrustfulness cloud his view of her.
Whether he is equally unable to judge the young man who falls in love with his daughter almost doesn't matter. He makes it impossible for their relationship to grow in any normal way, which is destructive to everyone.
By the end of the play, Jones' movements are calculated and stately, which, we know, is the way Catherine will spend the rest of her life. If only she had been an Edith Wharton heroine, there might have been some secret pleasure in her life, but as a creation of Henry James, she is the victim of a remorseless social code.
As her father, Philip Bosco is suitably stern, but it might be useful if we believed he acted from parental concern rather than icy tyranny. Frances Sternhagen is beguiling as his indulgent sister. As the suitor, Jon Tenney is full of charm, but there is no ambiguity - we never doubt he is a bounder.
Jane Greenwood's costumes are splendid, Beverly Emmons' lighting creates moods powerfully, and Robert Waldman has written evocative music. "The Heiress" is powerful theater.
This morning raise a glass to actor Philip Bosco (well, we all knew he was brilliant), to that dear old Broadway vehicle, "The Heiress," and to its compelling new star, Cherry Jones.
"The Heiress" may now be nearly 50 years old, but as was shown by last night's dazzling revival at the Cort Theater, she is as conventional but as rich as ever. Indeed, the lady's loaded.
It is a wondrously strange irony that while Henry James, who so longed for recognition as a playwright, never succeeded in producing a really stageworthy drama, a number of his novels have been turned into decent enough plays, most notably this "Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on "Washington Square."
Not that James does not lose something in the dramatic translation - those subtleties of social style and human psychology which lie at the heart of his novels are inevitably missed or glossed over - but in "The Heiress" the basic situation is so strong and clear that it can withstand any amount of manhandling from playwrights.
After all here we have such classic themes as ugly ducklings, worms turning, even Cinderella and her Prince - and all interwoven in boldly observed portraits of a woman and her obtuse, stubborn, bruised, cruel and clever father.
The over-bearing Dr. Austin Sloper (Bosco) is a successful and popular New York physician, living with his only child, Catherine (Jones), in a handsome house on Washington Square.
Sloper's wife, a rich woman, died in childbirth, and he has never remarried, so the shy, reclusive, rather plain Catherine has become a constant reminder of his loss, and equally a disappointment to him, as she consistently fails to live up to his recollections of her brilliant mother.
Unexpectedly, Catherine acquires a suitor in the charming but penniless Morris Townsend (John Tenney). Disdainfully her father tells her it is only her money he is after.
And when, after he threatens to disinherit her, Townsend jilts Catherine, leaving her waiting painfully for his promised carriage to arrive for their elopement, it seems apparent that the doctor's cynicism was justified.
But was it? Would Catherine be better off with Morris or without him? As the play unfolds further, you can make up your own mind.
Over the years "The Heiress" has proved popular enough for it nowadays to carry a freight of comparisons, devolving from movies and memories, and full of such formidable figures as Ralph Richardson, Wendy Hiller, Peggy Ashcroft and even Montgomery Clift.
But this present delight - given by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten's Lincoln Center Theater - can hold its own with the very best the past can throw at it.
Staged with studied delicacy by Gerald Gutierrez, with a memorable setting by John Lee Beatty and exquisitely judged costumes by Jane Greenwood, the whole production seems a perfect exercise in style.
Even so, the look and feel of the piece would go for little were it not for the acting. Bosco, a model of suave contempt and surface bonhomie, proves orotundly grandiose as the embittered, self-centered Sloper.
Frances Sternhagen flutters as adorably as ever as Catherine's surprisingly hard-headed aunt, and Tenney makes an agreeably evasive, and ambiguous, Morris.
But the play really depends on its Catherine, and here Jones, radiant in hope, tragic in despair, chilling in conviction, resonates with passions that seem all the more vibrant for being suppressed and thwarted. This is one of those star-making performances that leaves a career transfigured.
Broadway's heritage is being well served at the Cort Theater where "The Heiress," the Lincoln Center Theater's handsome revival of the 1947 hit, opened last night. If you would like to see a first-rate production of the kind of comparatively small, well-made play that Broadway once trafficked in, you won't want to miss it.
In fact, most well-made plays of the 1930's and 40's really weren't or, if they were, they were well made from such familiar ingredients that audiences were ahead of them from start to finish. "The Heiress" is something else.
It's the literate, highly theatrical Ruth and Augustus Goetz adaptation of the Henry James novel "Washington Square" (1880), a psychological horror story set in the upper reaches of genteel New York society in the 1850's. Though "Washington Square" is classified as a novel, it has the tight focus and unbroken narrative line of a short story, which is one of the reasons it fits the stage with such surprising efficiency.
Starring in the production, which was directed by Gerald Gutierrez, are the veteran Philip Bosco and a splendid young actress who's new to me, Cherry Jones. They appear as Dr. Austin Sloper, a sternly protective if resolutely unloving father, and his daughter, Catherine, the initially plain, commonplace young woman whose life he wrecks for her own good. These are the roles originated on the stage by Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller, and played by Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland in the somewhat lifeless 1949 film version directed by William Wyler.
By coincidence, Mr. Bosco comes to "The Heiress" from Stephen Daldry's current, physically spectacular, revisionist revival of "An Inspector Calls," the J. B. Priestley play that also had its New York premiere in 1947. As Mr. Daldry opens up Priestley's small, well-made play to disguise its symmetry and to give 1990's relevance to its World War II idealism, Mr. Gutierrez's production of "The Heiress" celebrates the hermetic qualities that made the original production so effective.
In its own way, "The Heiress" is certainly as symmetrical (that is, as plot-conscious) as "An Inspector Calls," but it also has characters of a complexity that were probably beyond the scope, and maybe even the interest, of Priestley as a playwright. "The Heiress" is all too neat in its form, but it's also rich in psychological detail.
This is the strength of the Gutierrez production, which, by faithfully serving the text, allows us to appreciate a 1947 drama based on an 1880 novel set in the 1850's. Nothing has been opened up. No 1990's hindsight creeps in. A single setting, John Lee Beatty's shimmering representation of the drawing room of the Slopers' house on Washington Square, is the only landscape needed for the life-and-death struggle that's at the heart of "The Heiress."
It's here that the grossly shy Catherine first meets Morris Townsend (Jon Tenney), a handsome fortune hunter whose only talents are for being amusing and for enjoying the privileges of the rich. To the disgust of her father, Morris is as drawn to Catherine's money, and to everything it represents, as he is to her. When at one point he abandons Catherine after her father threatens to disinherit her, Morris is surprised that she should be surprised. After all, he reasons, Catherine without money would not be the Catherine he finds so endearing.
The Morris Townsend of the play is actually somewhat more interesting than the Morris in the novel, where the character's opportunism appears to be far more calculated and cruel. The principal confrontations in the play are not between Morris and Catherine, but between Catherine and her father. The doctor, while always polite, has never forgiven her for surviving the birth that killed her mother. He resents Catherine's lack of social graces, her undistinguished looks, her silly mind, her fear of him, even her life.
How Catherine gains the upper hand, and at what cost, provides the play with its dark fascination.
Yet because there's never any serious doubt about what must happen, only about how and when, there's a certain narrowness about "The Heiress" as a piece of dramatic literature. The play leaves no loose ends. It evokes nothing larger. It's too perfectly articulated and too briskly wrapped up. Early in the novel, when James is describing Catherine's feelings about the widowed aunt who is her principal companion, he notes that "there was nothing of the infinite about Mrs. Penniman; Catherine saw her all at once."
In much the same way, there's nothing of the infinite about "The Heiress," as there is about another play that opened in the same 1947 season: "A Streetcar Named Desire." In effect, you see "The Heiress" all at once. The meanings of the play's events are fixed, cleanly defined. It's a very good, technically accomplished work, without being a great one.
While it's going on, though, it's extremely satisfying. The dialogue, much of which seems to come directly from the novel, alternately pierces the mind with its wit and shakes up the emotions with its brutality. Among the most violent confrontations on Broadway at the moment must be the scene in which Dr. Sloper ridicules his daughter's conviction that Morris is not after her money. "No?" he bellows, his patience having run out. "What else then, Catherine? Your beauty? Your grace? Your charm? Your quick tongue and subtle wit?" In disgust he adds, "You embroider neatly."
These are rich roles, grounded in nuance and fully realized by the four principal cast members. Mr. Bosco has the authority of an upper-middle-class, 19th-century Protestant tyrant. He moves through the play full of fury, self-assurance and lethal disgust. He's excellent.
At the beginning of the play, Ms. Jones's fearful Catherine gives the impression of bobbing awkwardly and weightlessly around everyone else, like a life-size balloon. Even her features seem amorphous. In the course of the performance, as Catherine comes to understand the way she's regarded by both her father and Morris, the character seems to assume defining shape and beauty. She takes command of her body and mind. When, toward the end, her aunt is shocked by her cruelty, Catherine's answer is not only logical butis splendid theater as well. "I've been taught by masters!" she says.
A great line. Nothing more to be said.
Mr. Tenney's Morris also appears to gain heft as the performance proceeds. Early on he's too transparent to be true, but by the beginning of the second act, when Morris deludes himself into thinking he has succeeded in his courtship, the character has become dangerously, pathetically overconfident. He's a failed rascal. Standing by throughout, wanting to help but always ready to hop, birdlike, out of the way, is the smiling, infinitely sad Aunt Lavinia Penniman of Frances Sternhagen.
It's a lovely cast.
Poor old Henry James. He tried so desperately to be a successful playwright, but always failed. Would he have approved of the success that later pros, including Mr. and Mrs. Goetz, had with his work? Probably not.
With its superb direction and cast, Lincoln Center Theater's meticulous revival of "The Heiress" does the improbable by giving an unexpected emotional vitality to Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 chestnut, based on Henry James' novel "Washington Square."
Although Gerald Gutierrez's direction can't be undervalued, "The Heiress" is not by any stretch "director's theater." This is not new life through hyper-stylization (a la "An Inspector Calls") but rather an intelligent, clear-eyed telling of a well-made play. The melodrama hasn't so much been eliminated as confronted head-on and presented unapologetically.
The result is surprisingly effective, notwithstanding the familiarity of the tale (the last Broadway revival, in 1976, featured Richard Kiley, Jane Alexander and David Selby in the lead roles). Despite a perceptible shift in tone at the play's end, "The Heiress" remains true to the version most will remember, the 1949 movie that starred an Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland.
Then, as now, the heiress is Catherine Sloper (Cherry Jones), a plain Jane whose charm evaporates in the company of others and who seems destined to a life of spinsterhood, albeit wealthy spinsterhood. Although an intelligent conversationalist with her compassionate Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Frances Sternhagen), Catherine is never more tongue-tied than when around her critical, overbearing father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Philip Bosco). Although he disguises his disappointment in his awkward daughter as loving concern, he in fact has never forgiven the girl for being born: His beloved wife died in childbirth.
Into the well-appointed parlor of the Sloper household (wonderfully detailed in John Lee Beatty's rich set, which recreates a Washington Square home circa 1850) comes Morris Townsend (Jon Tenney), a handsome rake as charming as he is penniless. Within two weeks of meeting Catherine, Morris has proposed. The love-struck girl accepts over her father's objections -- Dr. Sloper has so little regard for her that he can't imagine a man like Morris being attracted to anything other than her money.
That Dr. Sloper turns out to be right doesn't mitigate his cruelty, and Catherine's heartbreaking realization of her plight -- she is and will remain unloved and alone -- is a powerful denouement, both in the writing and in Jones' breathtaking performance. Fans of late, late shows will know what happens next, and how Catherine exacts her revenge; they won't expect this Catherine's steely self-acceptance, a resignation that suggests more emotional complication than the film's finale.
Under Gutierrez's sure hand, the exceptional cast never falters. Bosco is made to order as the cold, pompous father. As the aunt, Sternhagen must convey both love for her niece and the suspicion that the girl's father is correct in his distrust of the suitor, and the actress finds just the right balance. The ensemble of players, including those in lesser roles, is without exception top-rate.
But it is Jones' Catherine that holds the play together and the audience entranced. Catherine begins in a state of near-pathological shyness, blossoms in love, is crushed by loss and re-emerges with both resignation and self-confidence. Jones makes the shifts seamless and is utterly convincing through every second. Her heiress has more to offer than Dr. Sloper could ever imagine. Happily, this production offers more than one would ever expect.