The latest revival of "The Heiress" has done the near impossible - it's drained the light from one of the most luminous actresses working today. In a good way.
Jessica Chastain, that ravishing redhead with the milky skin who shot a dose of bubbly charm to the film "The Help," turns almost ghoulish in the title role at the Walter Kerr Theatre, which appropriately opened Thursday, the day after Halloween.
Chastain had her work cut out for her playing the "plain" Henry James heroine Catherine Sloper - "an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise" - forced to choose between a potentially gold-digging suitor and her aloof father, but the actress has seemingly scrubbed all beauty from her face and voice.
What's left is a skittish woman with hollow eyes, a simply horrible hostess who, when she speaks, does so in a dull monotone. Even her hair looks mousy. Full credit goes to Chastain, who has buried herself in dullness to play one of theater's more formidable proto-feminist roles.
The men in her life - David Strathairn plays her father and Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey" her suitor - aren't too shabby either, each turning in performances that are complex and sympathetic. Neither actor, under the superb, subtle direction of Moises Kaufman, emerges as a straw man.
Strathairn's disappointment is heavy, his barbs painful and laced with sadness - "Help her to be clever," he begs one of his sisters - while Stevens makes sure his love of the heiress and his love of fine things aren't mutually exclusive. One quibble: The Britain-born Stevens has adopted an accent that can only be described as "cowboy."
Chastain negotiates these two men with her heart on her sleeve. She delivers the famous line, "Someone must love me! I have never had anyone!" with powerful anguish. At the play's very end, the evolution into a stronger Catherine is complete, and she snarls to her father and aunt: "Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters!"
Another marvelous turn is delivered by Judith Ivey in that tough role of the aunt Lavinia, a romantic woman prone to flightiness. Ivey keeps her light but not stupid. When it becomes clear that Catherine has misread her beloved, Lavinia scolds her. "I know him so well," she says. And we know she's right.
All the action takes place in Derek McLane's handsome parlor set - rich heavy curtains and an elegant, shimmering loveseat - all lit subtly by David Lander. Albert Wolsky's costumes are lush without being flamboyant, perfectly suited to a home on Washington Square that is expensive but tasteful - and not warm.
Kaufman ratchets up the tension in the final scene beyond the script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. In this version, Stevens calls and bangs piteously against Catherine's front door. His anguish falls on deaf ears, of course, the last act of heartbreak in a play filled with them.
No wonder “The Heiress” has returned to Broadway time and again since its 1947 premiere. Romance, money, lies, manipulation and petticoats: Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s melodrama has it all.
Inspired by Henry James’ short novel “Washington Square,” the 1850-set story is built so sturdily that even a fitful revival like the one that opened last night still holds our attention.
Driving this vehicle are Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens, who’ve been seen frequently on screens big and small over the past few years but are only now making their Broadway debuts.
To play the title character, Catherine Sloper, Chastain (“The Help,” “The Tree of Life”) has camouflaged her copper hair under a mousy brown wig.
But brightness wouldn’t fit the painfully shy and self-effacing Catherine. She always looks as if she wants to hide behind the heavy drapes lining her family’s Greenwich Village home — realistically rendered by Derek McLane’s opulent set.
Catherine comes to life when the dashing Morris Townsend’s around. And so does the audience, because Morris is played by Stevens, the blue-eyed British heartthrob best known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey.” Audible sighs greeted his entrance at a recent performance, with a repeat when he let out a convincingly American “ma’am.”
Catherine revels in Morris’ attentions. For years, she’s endured the put-downs of her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn), who holds her personally responsible for her mother’s death in childbirth.
Catherine is a smart woman with a sharp wit, but her father sees only her limitations, her lack of social graces and her inability for small talk.
So when Morris comes a-courtin’, Sloper just assumes he’s in it for Catherine’s money.
Turns out the doctor is right, but so what?
As the play progresses, Catherine undergoes a drastic wake-up call. There’s a distinct before and after in her personality, making the role a juicy one — Cherry Jones won a Tony for it in 1995. Under Moisés Kaufman’s direction, Chastain negotiates the first stage well. Her socially and emotionally crippled Catherine is like a bonsai tree forced to grow stunted.
But there’s a definite turning point when Catherine understands both Morris’ real agenda and the depth of her father’s loathing. Unfortunately, Chastain isn’t authoritative enough.
When she utters the play’s most famous line — “Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters!” — the words should hit us like a hammer. Here, they barely graze.
Luckily, the faltering star is propped up by pros.
Stevens does well enough as a charming snake, but even he recedes in the background whenever the great Judith Ivey appears as Aunt Lavinia, a chuckling biddy.
As for Strathairn, he gives an interestingly counterintuitive take on Sloper, camouflaging his bullying behind a bumbling demeanor.
The play itself takes care of the rest, carrying us along like the well-crafted yarn it is. They don’t write ’em like this anymore.
Oh, boy, candlelight and brandy snifters! Big taffeta dresses and brocade wallpaper and extra-crisp consonants! And let’s not omit that never-fail one-two punch of a literary name (Henry James, in this case) and a Hollywood name (Jessica Chastain, the latest It Girl of thinking person’s cinema). And bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.
Oops, scratch that last combination. (This is perhaps not the moment for Rodgers and Hammerstein.) But if these are a few of your favorite things, you will find plenty to nibble on in the handsome, starchy new revival of “The Heiress,” which opened on Thursday night at the Walter Kerr Theater, with Ms. Chastain providing a bluntly drawn outline of the title character.
Yes, it’s Masterpiece Theater on Broadway. Moisés Kaufman’s production of “The Heiress” — Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s sturdy 1947 adaptation of the James novella “Washington Square” — studiously follows the mainstream New York theater’s longstanding, comfort-food recipe for class-meets-mass appeal. (The Roundabout Theater Company has made this subgenre its specialty.) It is lovely to look at, easy to follow and — with the exception of a vivid supporting performance from Judith Ivey — about as full of real life as an Olde New York Christmas window in a department store.
Not that the audience with which I saw the show seemed to feel deprived. There were five separate outbreaks of applause during the first 10 minutes. The first came as soon as the curtain rose on Derek McLane’s set, a sumptuous interior of a New York house on Washington Square (with a lovely Irish maid, played by Virginia Kull, lighting a chandelier) that might do double duty for an episode of Masterpiece’s silver-plated hit “Downton Abbey.”
The other four eruptions were reserved for the entrances of the play’s four leading performers: Ms. Chastain as the socially crippled, financially endowed Catherine Sloper; David Strathairn as Dr. Austin Sloper, her tyrannical, unloving father; Dan Stevens (of “Downton Abbey,” if you please) as Morris Townsend, the dashing fortune hunter who comes between them; and Ms. Ivey as Catherine’s foolish aunt, Lavinia Penniman, who becomes the lovers’ confidante and liaison. Of course, those ovations were probably not only for the stars but also for the lavish period costumes by Albert Wolsky, which they wear most elegantly.
It doesn’t hurt that the book that inspired this play has always been a crowd pleaser, much to the distaste of the man who wrote it. “Washington Square” (1880) is Henry James for people who usually can’t abide Henry James. It is written in a straightforward, cozy style that has little to do with the labyrinthine interior explorations of later James. Short and perfectly constructed, it builds to a quietly harrowing climax that anticipates the genteel, ironic-twist revenge tales of W. Somerset Maugham.
James’s story of a woman who loses her heart and finds her dignity was transformed by the Goetzes into an enduring war horse for the stage (and has been far more successful than any of James’s own ventures into playwriting). It has since been revived on Broadway on three previous occasions and is the basis for the warmly remembered 1949 William Wyler film.
The part of Catherine — who defies her father in her love for a penniless suitor — has tended to be an awards magnet. Olivia de Havilland copped an Oscar for it, and Cherry Jones won the Tony for the 1995 revival. It is a role in which charismatic actresses hide their lights under bushels of drabness before fanning them into climactic flames in the second act. Ms. Jones’s performance, which featured an explosion of repressed emotion I’m still reeling from, turned her virtually overnight into Broadway’s leading dramatic actress.
For the moment such laurels would seem to be out of Ms. Chastain’s reach. She has one of those uncanny bone structures, like Garbo’s, that the camera translates automatically into emotional depth, and she has given translucent performances in movies that include “The Help” and “Tree of Life.” Beneath the stage lights those fine bones throw fascinating shadows on her face. Her performance, on the other hand, is as shadowless as a high noon.
Wearing a mousy brown wig and hunching her shoulders, Ms. Chastain improbably manages to simulate homeliness. And her face registers feelings sharply and legibly. But, curiously for an expert film actress, she is guilty here of oversignaling the thoughts within. She plays Catherine’s spinsterish awkwardness for broad comedy in the early scenes. And her delivery of dialogue sometimes has a flatness that I associate with cold readings of scripts.
This is surely a conscious choice, but it has the effect of making Catherine seem even more, uh, mentally challenged than usual. And I never felt the urgency of filial and romantic love festering into vengeful hatred, which should inform any production of “The Heiress.”
As her patrician physician father, who has never forgiven Catherine for the death of her mother in childbirth or for growing up neither clever nor beautiful, Mr. Strathairn is surprisingly low-key and deferential. It’s an original interpretation of a character usually portrayed as an ogre of self-centeredness (as by a peerless Ralph Richardson in the 1949 film). And there are moments when it pays off, notably at the top of the second act, when Dr. Sloper returns from Europe as a walking miasma of disappointment.
But I’m not sure that self-effacement generally becomes Dr. Sloper. What’s so slyly unsettling about James’s novel (and, I would argue, Wyler’s film) is the feeling of monstrous egotism and cruelty blossoming in the Slopers’ decorous town house. And I didn’t sense that toxic selfishness from Mr. Strathairn or from Mr. Stevens, whose performance as the charming, calculating Morris Townsend is shiny, well spoken and lacking in discernible undercurrents.
That pretty much leaves Ms. Ivey, a two-time Tony winner, to walk away with the show. Fatuously and foolishly romantic but with a slowly revealed core of cynical pragmatism, Lavinia doesn’t usually command our affections. But at the play’s end it was Lavinia I felt sorry for. That’s because Ms. Ivey made us sense the mortal fear and desperation within this woman’s agitated silliness.
When, shortly before the final curtain, Lavinia says, “My dear, life can be very long for a woman alone,” I experienced a shiver of compassion, and I realized it was the first time I had done so all night. Otherwise I had been reasonably content, if unstirred, listening to the plot’s oiled cylinders click into place and admiring the view.
Maybe, if someone never saw the revelatory Cherry Jones in the 1995 revival of "The Heiress," well, maybe the one now starring Jessica Chastain would make the 1947 drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz feel like a genuine demi-classic discovery.
Perhaps, had we not lost ourselves 17 years ago in Gerald Gutierrez's rapturously unsentimental staging of the play inspired by Henry James' late-19th century "Washington Square" (and made into William Wyler's Oscar vehicle for Olivia de Havilland in 1949), well, perhaps we wouldn't be so let down by the phony theatricality and comic mugging in director Moisés Kaufman's gorgeously decorated, emotionally simplistic production.
It is possible that I'm being too hard on this much-anticipated, lavishly creaky revival, which also stars the dashing Dan Stevens ("Downton Abbey") as the dashing fellow who comes to court Catherine Sloper (Chastain), the painfully shy only child of the domineering wealthy doctor (the splendidly straightforward David Strathairn).
But Chastain, the fine movie actress in her Broadway debut, only comes to life in the second half, after the handsome but penniless gentleman caller claims to want to marry her. Before that, Chastain just seems like a beautiful actress pretending to be plain and graceless, one who can't wait to get on her blush and blossom into the powerful woman Catherine becomes.
Surely, it was not Chastain's idea to make the shy Catherine so cartoon-maladroit that, each time she makes a low curtsy, this impeccably bred woman bows so low she appears to disappear behind the sofa as if doing a vaudeville mime routine.
In general, Kaufman seems not to trust the real breaking heart of the drama, as psychologically tuned as a well-made play can get without ever leaving the velvet prison of a parlor. Except for Strathairn's conflicted and complex father, the characters are so transparent in their motivations that we're not allowed to wonder who really wants what and why. Judith Ivey, as Catherine's supportive aunt, does one of those dithery-biddy acts that misses the poignancy of a widow who has known real romantic love, and the maid (Virginia Kull) seems to have wandered in from a neighboring farce.
Fast-rising film star Jessica Chastain has earned acclaim in a wide range of roles recently, and the part that brings this Juilliard graduate back to the stage is surely as daunting as any of them.
In a new Broadway revival of The Heiress (* * * stars out of four), Chastain is cast as Catherine Sloper, a young woman living with her wealthy, accomplished, intimidating father in mid-19th-century Manhattan. We're introduced to Catherine largely through the perspective of Dr. Austin Sloper, a widower who views his only child as plain and dull -- the polar opposite of the graceful, vivacious woman who died giving birth to her.
The rather musty play, inspired by the Henry James novel Washington Square, suggests that Catherine deserves better than the doctor's diagnosis; yet it presents her, at least until the final scenes, as more a pitiable figure than an admirable one.
Yet in this revival, which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it is clearly Chastain's intention to lend more depth to her character. The actress doesn't do this by emphasizing her physical charms; to the contrary, the swan-like beauty deftly channels her inner duckling, her flat voice and stiff, awkward gestures at first suggesting a dim light trying to fade into her surroundings.
Catherine finds a spark, though, in Morris Townsend, a suspiciously avid suitor played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey). Meeting Catherine, whose cousin is engaged to his brother, at the Sloper residence, Stevens' Morris seems overeager and earnest; though we glean early on that he doesn't have a proper job and has already run through his inheritance, those unfamiliar with the story may be hard-pressed to determine whether Morris sees Catherine as a meal ticket or is truly drawn to her lack of airs and almost painful sincerity.
Guided with careful vigor by director Moises Kaufman, the performers prod us to consider that those two goals may not be mutually exclusive -- just as their co-star, a predictably superb David Strathairn, reveals glimmers of genuine paternal concern behind Dr. Sloper's withering disapproval of his daughter.
Strathairn's fellow veteran Judith Ivey proves a delightful foil as Austin's widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman, a good-natured interloper for the budding young couple. But there's a pragmatism underlying Lavinia's enthusiasm for her niece; and Ivey makes this poignantly palpable.
In the end, it's up to the leading lady to ensure that we care about Catherine, rather than seeing her as a distressed damsel in a quaint melodrama. And Chastain gives her a forbearance and dignity that blossoms even after her frail glow seems in danger of being extinguished .
It's a nuanced, compassionate performance that bodes well for the actress' future, on stage and off.
If you can overlook the absurdity of casting the ravishing Jessica Chastain as the plain and clumsy heroine of "The Heiress," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 stage adaptation of "Washington Square," then Moises Kaufman's masterfully helmed production is everything you want from a Class A revival. As is proper for a costume drama, the costumes are mouthwatering. The set is just as scrumptious, and the cast seems entirely comfortable speaking the language and thinking the thoughts of people from a bygone era -- David Strathairn so much so, you'd swear he goes up the staircase to bed each night after the show.
With the exception of Agamemnon -- who sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods for a good tailwind so he could sail off to fight the Trojan War -- has any father ever treated his daughter as unkindly as Dr. Austin Sloper? The very face of depression in Strathairn's haunting performance, that unhappy man is still mourning the young wife who died in childbirth 30 years ago. To keep the memory of his bride alive, he has maintained their magnificent townhouse on Washington Square exactly as it was when she decorated it in 1820 -- an era of tasteful opulence that set designer Derek McLane renders in silky dark woods and luscious fabrics.
But loving memories of the dead can be cruel to the living, and Dr. Sloper's inconsiderate comparisons of his beautiful, clever wife with his plain, dull daughter, Catherine (Chastain), are as wounding as they are unkind.
His sensible sister, Elizabeth Almond (warmly played by Caitlin O'Connell), tries to alert Dr. Sloper to the damaging effects of his constant criticisms. His flighty but sweet sister, the widow Lavinia Penniman (the adorable Judith Ivey, looking even more adorable in a mobcap), appreciates Catherine's finer qualities and does her best to point them out to her brother. In one brief but perfect scene, played with the utmost subtlety by Strathairn and Dee Nelson, even a perfect stranger advises Dr. Sloper to find it in his heart to be kinder to his unhappy, love-starved daughter.
But a lifetime of her father's disapproval and disappointment has molded Catherine into the very creature he despises: a dull-witted, unattractive woman without any attributes -- outside her fortune -- to make her appealing to a potential husband.
Under the circumstances, it's only natural that poor Catherine should fall for a handsome but heartless fortune hunter like Morris Townsend, a charming enough fellow in Dan Stevens' smooth performance, if rather too obviously a cad and a bounder.
The beauty of Henry James' character work (respectfully retained in the Goetzes' adaptation) is his ability to see beneath a person's outer skin. James' morally respectable women may not approve of Morris' transparent fortune hunting, but they aren't entirely averse to the notion of a rich woman buying a husband -- provided she gets to choose him herself. Not even Aunt Lavinia, that silly romantic who aids and abets Morris' machinations, is as gullible as she seems.
But it does take some serious play-acting to present Chastain's Catherine as the drab little mouse everyone says she is. How to pretend that this gauche girl has committed a faux pas by appearing in a vulgar cherry-red gown when Chastain, her lovely face aglow, steps out in a stunning, figure-flattering number in a delicious shade of garnet?
(That's not exactly a criticism, because Albert Wolsky's multilayered and painstakingly detailed costumes -- especially Aunt Lavinia's lush mourning weeds -- are a feast for the eyes.)
Chastain does her level best to find her own inner spinster, and she's quite touching in the heart-ripping scene when it slowly dawns on Catherine that her prince will never come. But not since Julia Roberts made a brief stage appearance playing a frump has anyone struggled so hard to keep a dazzling smile in lockdown.