The 1995 production of “The Heiress” took Broadway by storm, nabbing top Tony Awards for best play revival, actress, featured actress, and director, and it cleaned up at the Drama Desk Awards as well.
The intense period drama, about a fraught young woman torn between a domineering father and a slippery suitor, established Cherry Jones, in the titular role, as a formidable force in New York theater. I recall being blown away by the second act.
Indeed, the new production at the Walter Kerr Theatre has some mighty big shoes to fill. And while it employs some heavy hitters — Moisés Kaufman (director), David Strathairn (the tyrannical father), Judith Ivey (the meddlesome aunt), and Derek McLane (scenic design) — it also takes some questionable risks.
The heiress, Catherine, is played by Broadway neophyte Jessica Chastain, known for her work in film (“The Help,” “Tree of Life”). Playing opposite her as the suitor, Mr. Townsend, is the charming Dan Stevens, another newcomer to the Great White Way, known for the British television imports “Downton Abbey” and “The Line of Beauty.”
Only one of these casting risks fully pays off.
The story, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, using the Henry James novel “Washington Square” as source material, is both intriguing and durable. The well-to-do, socially prominent Dr. Sloper lives with his mousey daughter, in her late 20s, in a handsome house at one of the most exclusive addresses in 1850s New York, 16 Washington Square.
When a young man of little means or prospects suddenly asks for Catherine’s hand in marriage, the doctor brands him a fortune hunter. For upon the doctor’s death, she would receive $30,000 per year (that’s roughly a million dollars in today’s currency). During the course of the two-and-a-half-hour drama, betrayals abound.
The excellent Straithairn portrays the overprotective Dr. Sloper as a tyrant with a soft side. Even when he’s snapping at Catherine, we understand his frustration and believe he truly has her best interests at heart.
“You are good for nothing unless you are clever,” Dr. Sloper says, annoyed that his daughter gets hopelessly tongue-tied at social gatherings.
Tragically, Catherine inherited none of the attractive qualities that her mother, who died in childbirth years before, possessed in spades. Dr. Sloper describes his daughter as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise.”
Ivey, a ten-time Broadway veteran, is marvelous as the aunt who alternates allegiances between her niece and the young wastrel. She regards him as the son she never had.
Stevens proves that his television appeal transfers easily to the stage. His eager Mr. Townsend has us convinced that he’s in it for love, not just the money. He conveys only a whiff of duplicity, which keeps us guessing to the end.
The weak link is Chastain. As the plain, painfully awkward homebody who succumbs to the wiles of the dashing Mr. Townsend, she occasionally registers as, well, painfully awkward in the role. Her clunky curtsy when greeting guests becomes a punchline rather than a poignant emblem of her lack of confidence and grace. Some moments she appears to enter into a momentary trance, as if possessed by a demon.
Under the assured direction of Kaufman (“33 Variations,” “I Am My Own Wife”), “The Heiress” starts off as a drawing room comedy of manners that becomes a simmering pot of avarice and resentment, only to boil over in a climax meant to rattle the soul. And yet, given Chastain’s shaky turn, the sting is not as potent as it should be.
Perhaps the biggest star of the production is McLane’s gorgeous drawing room set, with its tastefully elegant carved wooden beams, burgundy wallpaper, Duncan Phyfe settees (dictated in the script), and suspended crystal chandelier. Upon seeing the splendor, it’s clear why Mr. Townsend might lust after Catherine’s fortune.
Enormous arched windows look out onto the Square, and the carefully modulated daylight (by David Lander) effectively indicates the passage of time. Albert Wolsky designed the sophisticated costumes.
For history-minded theatergoers, “The Heiress” offers another level of appeal. If you go to Washington Square, the neighborhood where Henry James was born, you’ll find a cherished row of mid 19th-century Greek revival townhouses on the north side that one could easily imagine as the residence of the Sloper family.
THE HEIRESS | Walter Kerr Theatre | 219 W. 48th St. |Through Feb. 10 | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. | $50-$135 | telecharge.com