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'The Heiress' fails to ascend to royal heights

Posted on November 6, 2012 | by Clio McConnell

This November, “The Heiress” transports theatergoers back to the mid-19th century. Moisés Kaufman directs a cast of talented, well-known actors in this revival, which is based on Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square.”

Scrupulously staged, this production stars Jessica Chastain as the titular heiress, Catherine Sloper, and David Strathairn as her pragmatic father, Austin Sloper. Dan Stevens, of “Downton Abbey” fame, plays Chastain’s suitor, Morris Townsend.

“The Heiress” follows Morris’s pursuit of Catherine, a plain young woman who is almost cripplingly awkward among company. Catherine is a huge disappointment to her father, who is a successful and wealthy doctor. Catherine also stands to receive quite a bundle of money from her father and is starved for affection while Morris is a handsome, charismatic young man who has just spent the last of his small inheritance.

The heroine’s conflict is that she loves two men, both of whom might only be interested in money. Indeed, her father seems far more concerned with his legacy than with his daughter’s happiness, and we can never be sure whether Morris is truly in love with Catherine or her inheritance.

It is this last bit that is most troubling. In this production, Stevens’ portrayal of Morris appears entirely genuine from the first act. Instead of being a sleazy opportunist, he gallantly defends Catherine when her father criticizes her and generally shows fondn

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ess for this poor girl, who has been emotionally neglected throughout her life. Paired with Chastain’s shy, funny and terrifically tragic Catherine, Morris seems lovesick and even awkward — a far cry from the more calculating figure the script portrays.

When we arrive at the very dramatic ending, this choice proves problematic. Through most of the night, Morris’ affection for Catherine makes him appear endearing, but a few incongruously callous statements in the script serve to unravel his otherwise lovable performance. Audience members may leave the theater wondering whether or not Catherine makes the right choice.

It is this troublesome denouement that points to the show’s greatest misstep: an awfully inconsistent tone. What begins as a comedy of caricatures awkwardly morphs into an emotional tragedy. The saving grace of this version of “The Heiress” is Chastain’s steady portrayal of Catherine as a character worthy of sympathy. In the beginning Catherine is naive to the point of pity, but by the end she presents a gracefully disillusioned woman who has finally emerged from under the shadow of others’ low opinions.

“The Heiress” is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., through Feb. 10. For tickets and more information, see theheiressonbroadway.com.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 6 print edition. Clio McConnell is books/theater editor. Email her at cmcconnell@nyunews.com. 

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