January 19, 2013

"The Heiress" is Too Stingy With Its Favors

We regular Broadway theatergoers have gotten used to playing host to movie stars over the past few years.  But most of them have been young starlets (male and female) hoping to make their bones as really serious actors. Or former wunderkinds trying to rev up careers that aren’t as busy or wonderful as they once were. 

Rarely have we gotten a star in the supernova phase of her fame, as we now have with Jessica Chastain, who, at 35, is starring in the revival of The Heiress that is playing a limited engagement at the Walter Kerr Theatre through Feb. 10.

Within the past 10 days, Chastain has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial movie about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, won a Golden Globe for that role, seen the film open wide in theaters across the country and had a second film, the horror flick “Mama,” open just yesterday.

It’s hard to get hotter than all that (click here to read the actress' take on all of her recent good fortune). So one has to applaud Chastain’s decision to do a play at this time.  And I wish I could applaud what she’s done in it.  But I can’t. For not only is Chastain miscast but the entire production is off-key and both are misdirected by Moisés Kaufman.

Of course they all had big shoes to fill. “Washington Square,” the Henry James novella on which the play is based, was one of the author’s most accessible and popular works. The current production of The Heiress is the fourth Broadway revival of the play since Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the story for the stage in 1947.  And William Wyler’s 1949 movie version won four Oscars, including best actress for its star Olivia de Havilland; it is also one of my all-time favorites.

The title character Catherine Sloper, a plain young woman whose courtship by a handsome suitor may be prompted more by his interest in her money than affection for her, has also been played by Wendy Hiller, Julie Harris, Jane Alexander and, in 1995, by Cherry Jones in a Tony-wining production so utterly terrific in every way that it remains my husband K’s gold standard for theater. 

The Heiress may be Chastain’s Broadway debut but it wasn’t unrealistic to think that she might make a good Catherine too.  She’s a Juilliard trained actress who has further tightened her chops by appearing in productions at Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater and at Williamstown. And even before “Zero Dark Thirty” she’d been winning kudos for her nuanced work in movies like “The Help” and “The Tree of Life.”

But there’s little nuanced about her performance in The Heiress. When Catherine is supposed to be mousy, she’s mousy; when Catherine is supposed to be giddy, she’s giddy. Some critics have blamed Chastain’s high-cheekboned good looks, arguing that they undermine her ability to play someone so dowdy.  

Nonsense. The problem isn't on the outside; it's on the inside. Chastain is unable to dig deep enough to show us what motivates Catherine or what her actions cost her. In the final scene in which Catherine ascends a flight of stairs that will seal her destinywrenching each previous time I’ve seen itChastain bounced up the steps as though she were running to get ready for a you-go-girl evening with some gal pals.

And she’s not the only one in the cast who missteps.  Several of the critics have praised Judith Ivey’s performance as Catherine’s buttinsky Aunt Lavinia but while they found Ivey lively, she struck me as distractingly busy (click here to read an interview with that actress). 

Similarly, although David Strathairn is appropriately stern as Catherine’s physician father, there’s no sense of the doctor's underlying contempt for the daughter who has never matched up in his eyes to his beloved wife who died giving birth to their child.

Dan Stevens, the heir on PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” has the difficult role of keeping the audience guessing about the suitor’s true feelings for Catherine and sounding American while he's doing it.  His accent is fine but his character comes across as just a vapid fop. 

None of this is going to dim the radiance currently surrounding Chastain.  And I hope it doesn't dim her future willingness to do theater either.  I just hope that she'll choose something more fitting to her considerable talents so that she's able to show how truly brilliant she can be.

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