Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through February 10, $50 - $225
A star vehicle onstage and on the silver screen, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’s slim 1880 novel Washington Square, is set in 1850 New York City, where prominent society member Dr. Austin Sloper lives with his daughter, Catherine, a shy, awkward plain Jane he blames for the death of his beloved wife, who died in childbirth. Dr. Sloper asks his wife’s sister, Lavinia, to help Catherine break out of her shell, but he worries when a poor suitor named Morris Townsend comes calling, concerned that he’s really after his daughter’s rather substantial financial future. Over the years, the potent period drama has been performed by several all-star casts, with Wendy Hiller, Jane Alexander, Tony winner Cherry Jones, and Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Basil Rathbone, Richard Kiley, Philip Bosco, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, Peter Cookson, David Selby, Jon Tenney, and Montgomery Clift as Morris, and Patricia Collinge, Jan Miner, Tony winner Frances Sternhagen, and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia.
The latest incarnation, directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project, 33 Variations), ends up being a mixed bag, with another big-time cast led by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help) making her Broadway debut as Catherine, Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Goodnight, and Good Luck.) as her father, Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) in his Broadway debut as Morris, and multiple Tony winner Judith Ivey stealing the show as Lavinia. Taking place on a lush, elegant set by Derek McLane, the play is overly long at two hours and forty-five minutes with intermission, and Chastain’s portrayal of the mousey Catherine, who prefers to embroider rather than go out on the town, is somewhat dry and flat until it finally picks up steam late in the second act, when she finally decides to take action for herself. Strathairn is excellent as Dr. Sloper, a straightforward man who speaks candidly of his disappointment in Catherine, continually crushing her spirit. Stevens is solid as Morris, who professes his love for Catherine even after walking out on her, although the chemistry between Chastain and him never quite ignites. The play is most alive when Ivey is onstage, chattering away as Lavinia, her every movement and vocal twist a work of art, wearing fabulous black dresses that complement her niece’s more colorful gowns. All these years later, The Heiress is showing its age, but this new version still contains just enough memorable moments to make it worth revisiting.