The Heiress isn't widely regarded as a 20th-century classic. But director Moises Kaufman and the starry cast of this Broadway revival will have you reconsidering its merits. Loaded with headliners—Oscar nominees Jessica Chastain and David Strathairn, and Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame—this revival wouldn't have to be especially stirring or exciting to fill seats, but it is, thanks to a meticulously executed production, which highlights the complexity of the characters and never slips into melodrama.
Of course Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 drama has the pedigree of Henry James: It's based on his excellent novella Washington Square, about a very wealthy but painfully awkward plain-Jane, her remote father and the handsome but penniless suitor who wants to marry her. Chastain plays Catherine Sloper, who attracts the attention of Morris Townsend (Stevens), an exceedingly charming young man without the means to buy all the material goods he yearns for. Her emotionally repressed doctor father, Austin (Strathairn), still weighed down by the loss of his wife, who died giving birth to Catherine, is certain that Morris could only be attracted to Catherine's money, so he threatens to take away most of her inheritance if she marries him (although she'd still have more than enough to live on).
It may seem a thin plot to stretch into a two-hour-45-minute play, but the richly drawn characters, not to mention the interplay between the actors who inhabit them, makes the time sail by. Coldhearted Austin and smooth Morris could easily become one-dimensional villains, but Strathairn imbues the former with a perennial sadness without letting it mitigate his ill treatment of his daughter. And while Morris clearly craves the wealth that the Slopers enjoy, Stevens also captures his embarrassment at the position he finds himself in.
Chastain, after a shaky start, delivers an engrossing portrait of a woman longing to be loved. Simple moments like turning her back on her father or the disappointment on her face when she gets bad news carry real resonance. It's as rich and complex as life itself.
By Diane Snyder
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Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey, Molly Camp, Kieran Campion, Virginia Kull, Dee Nelson, Caitlin O'Connell
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
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