The Heiress

(Review by Tulis McCall)

What a pleasant surprise. Seriously. You know, The Heiress is one of those classic plays where my mind always begs the question - "Does it end the same way?" "Do I have to watch this woman go through a train wreck AGAIN?"

And the answer always comes back, "Yes. And Yes."

So I swanned into the Walter Kerr not that happy to be there. This production, however, changed my thinking. And after a crappy couple of weeks, that took some doing. Moisés Kaufman, of whom I am not a big fan, has taken definite and clear steps to craft this production, all of which worked for me.

First of all he has encouraged humor - from David Strathairn no less. Strathairn (Dr. Austin Sloper) is an actor who tries my patience, because most of the time he is cast as a sincere guy who is at the mercy of the fates, no doubt because he can grimace with the best of them. News Flash: Someone should hire him for a comedy - he has the chops and the sensitivity for that timing. Judith Ivey (Lavinia Penniman) was also allowed a few comic spins; although one gets the idea that she would have taken them anyway. And even Jessica Chastain (Catherine Sloper) was allowed a foray into comedy.

The time is 1850 and the location is 16 Washington Square - don't bother going, it's not there. Dr. Sloper is a man whose only daughter is a disappointment because she is not at all like her mother who died in childbirth. Catherine is more like her father: awkward with social situations and starving for affection and mental engagement. Both Sloper and his sister Lavinia are frightened of what might happen to Catherine if she does not marry. This, in spite of the fact that Catherine is an heiress who will have a yearly inheritance from her mother of $10,000 (think $270,000) and COULD have a total of $30,000 (think $810,000) if her father does not change is will.

So we are dealing with a poor little rich girl.

What has to happen is we have to start caring about Catherine. And we do. Even though the script dictates that she fall in love Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey) in the time it takes to turn off your mobile phone, we buy it. The same as we buy Romeo falling for Juliet, and Lear throwing his favorite daughter out with the bath water. We buy it because the script asks us to and because the production supports the request.

As Catherine's commitment to Morris escalates, so does her father's opposition. Morris himself remains self referential and determined. Even with a six month separation, the course of these two lovers is set. And when it turns a corner that only Catherine did not see coming, her devastation is sweeping and complete. That she rises out of the ashes is seen as a triumph and a disappointment.

This could have been played fast and loose. Instead this production goes deep and takes us into the depths as well. The issues of independence, duplicity, loyalty, shame, hope and survival are all here. Then there is that tidbit about feminism and equal rights - so apt for this time of year - to reconsider once again.

Well done.

"Handsome, starchy new revival."
Ben Brantley for NY Times

"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."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"Like a pining damsel, languishes"
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

"The production, ..., is handsome and effective ... though not quite gripping."
Robert Feldberg for The Record

"One wonders whether Kaufman - who does very ably by contemporary works - was the correct director for this revival of an entertaining chestnut."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"This is juicy, high-toned melodrama, and for the most part, stylishly executed. It's possible that, as the run progresses, Chastain might find more secure footing, placing a bolder stamp on the central role to capture the spark that's currently missing."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

"If you can overlook the absurdity of casting the ravishing Jessica Chastain as the plain and clumsy heroine of 'The Heiress,' then Moises Kaufman's masterfully helmed production is everything you want from a Class A revival."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - The Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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