“The Heiress,” Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s oft-revived 1947 stage adaptation of “Washington Square,” Henry James’ novel of 1850s New York, is back again -- Thursday was opening night for the latest of the tale of misplaced love, coveted property and a plain, diffident heroine who learns to bare her fangs.
Jessica Chastain’s profile has shot up via recent film roles, including “The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter” and “The Help" She made her Broadway debut as Catherine Sloper, the mousy heiress who’s caught between an insincere suitor (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”) and a domineering father (David Strathairn) who warns her that the swain she loves has eyes only for the fortune she’s in line to inherit.
Judith Ivey, a two-time Tony Award winner in supporting roles, is also on board as Catherine’s flighty spinster aunt.
Scheduled for a limited run through Feb. 10 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the period piece is directed by Moises Kaufman, who’s best known for staging 20th and 21st century history in “The Laramie Project,” “I Am My Own Wife” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
The critics were all over the place.
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley was not swept away: “It is lovely to look at, easy to follow and -- with the exception of a vivid supporting performance from Judith Ivey -- about as full of real life as an Olde New York Christmas window in a department store.”
For Brantley, Chastain’s performance couldn’t compete with the memory of Cherry Jones’ Tony-winning turn in the same role on Broadway in 1995: “I never felt the urgency of filial and romantic love festering into vengeful hatred, which should inform any production of ‘The Heiress.’”
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press applauded Kaufman’s “superb, subtle direction” and felt that Chastain did indeed succeed in vividly embodying Catherine’s transformation from meek to raging, while making an impressive transformation of her own -- from alluring, flame-haired film star to a devoted stage artist so committed to her role that she “has seemingly scrubbed all the beauty from her face and voice.”
Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News was pleased as well, rating Chastain “close to perfect” in her Broadway debut -- although he detected “an innate loveliness radiating through wig and makeup.”
Like several other critics, Gerard wasn’t impressed with Strathairn’s turn in a role that won Richard Chamberlain plaudits last spring at the Pasadena Playhouse: “Gruff and somewhat disheveled looking, [he] struck me as slightly ill-directed. While the other cast members neutralize a too-heavy directorial hand, this fine actor seems earthbound because of it. It’s small detriment to an otherwise engaging evening.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post was moderately pleased with the production, but lukewarm about Chastain: “When she utters the play’s most famous line -- ‘Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters!’ -- the words should hit us like a hammer. Here, they barely graze. Luckily, the faltering star is propped up by pros."
Linda Winer in Newsday would have given three thumbs down if she’d had that many to give, invoking the cherished memory of Cherry Jones before pronouncing herself “so let down by the phony theatricality and comic mugging in ... Kaufman’s gorgeously decorated, emotionally simplistic production.”