Review: Jessica Chastain, Dan Stevens Play Against Type in “The Heiress”

Would you marry someone who loved you for your money more than your soul, if there were no better prospects? And what if there was no way to be sure where that selfishness ended and the genuine love, if it’s there at all, begins? Such is the dilemma faced by Catherine Sloper, the shy heroine at the center of “The Heiress,” played by Jessica Chastain in a revival that just opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Fairly or not, two ghosts hang over this handsome production, directed by Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”). One is actress Cherry Jones, a Tony winner for her stirring turn in the play’s 1995 revival as Catherine, awkward daughter of a worldly, wealthy doctor. The other is Matthew Crawley, debonair heir in the BBC miniseries “Downton Abbey.” Crawley was a breakout role for British actor Dan Stevens; here, he makes his Broadway debut as Morris Townsend, Catherine's duplicitous suitor.

If you can set aside both of those potent forces, you’ll find "The Heiress" an appealing journey through love’s promises and regrets, though ultimately the affair between Catherine and Morris only achieves about the gravitas of a college fling—heady, for sure, but not ultimately compelling.

The play, a 1947 drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on the Henry James novella “Washington Square,” takes place in the lush front parlor of Dr. Austin Sloper’s house in Washington Square, ca. 1850. The doctor's early lines reveal the disappointment lurking in this comfortable home. While chatting with his maid, the widower (David Strathairn, perhaps warmer than the text warrants) advises: “When you are married, you must have a lot of children. That way, you won’t put all your hopes on one.” Enter Catherine, smile radiant, a rat’s nest of a wig barely distracting from the glow off Chastain’s porcelain features.

Catherine is tongue-tied in her father’s presence, and Chastain leans heavily on slow line delivery to convey her character's clumsiness and anxiety. Catherine, to her father, is undesirable, and the man who shows interest in her merely a “mercenary” after the girl’s inheritance. Since Catherine still looks like Jessica Chastain, Oscar-nominee for “The Help,” you'll need to suspend disbelief to buy her as “dowdy."

If you’re vaguely unsure of the power of television, gauge the volume of applause when Stevens makes his first appearance, 10 minutes or so in, even as the Broadway newcomer takes his place alongside stage vets Strathairn and Judith Ivey (a scene-stealer as Catherine’s meddlesome aunt, Lavinia Penniman). As Catherine’s pursuer, Stevens is as charming as we’ve seen on “Downton,” where his character is both sweet and not particularly complicated.

With Morris, I was hoping for a brooding sweet-talker who would seduce the audience as easily as he could Catherine. Here, the talented Stevens is more of a boy-next-door in search of a sugar mama. We see his selfishness most clearly in the second act, during a discussion of Catherine’s “worth” with her aunt. Caressing a piece of the doctor’s Venetian crystal, he explains that during his time in Venice, he bought two pieces, though he was down to his last 10 pounds. He kept them for a few weeks, “just to have them and look at them.” That’s the moment where we’re supposed to decide Morris is in this for money, not love; still, to accept Morris as sinister, we need more than this brief glimpse affords.

“The Heiress” delivers its grandest thrills in the famous final scene, where Catherine turns the tables on Morris. It’s a more hopeful finale than the one James offered, and certainly brighter (quite literally, thanks to superb lighting by David Lander) than the one seen on Broadway in 1995, which suggested Catherine’s imprisonment more than any sort of emotional freedom. This Catherine, as Chastain sends her off, seems happy to be relieved of her many burdens.

“The Heiress,” at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., through Feb. 10, 2013. Tickets: $50-$135; call 212-239-6200.

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