Theater Circuit: The Heiress (**½)

There’s a bit of a stale air surrounding The Heiress, the latest revival of the adaptation of Henry James’ novel, Washington Square, that almost threatens to ruin the proceedings. Having only seen the film version of the adaptation, I went into this play with little pretense about the play (and its many revivals). However, it felt as though the cast and creative team were trying so hard to be different and fresh that they overcompensated with strange acting choices and direction. Now that’s not to say that the production was dull or not worth the time, just that due to the need of finding something new in the material, they might have overlooked the simple things that make the source material so great.

Much of the play’s joys come from seeing some of the most likable actors interact in fascinating ways. Everyone loves Dan Stevens as the good guy Matthew Crawly on Downton Abbey, so it’s a shock to see him playing a character whose motives are ambiguous at best. His conversations with David Strathairn and wooing of Jessica Chastain provide some great meat for all of the actors to chew on. It’s also thrilling to see Chastain and Strathairn navigate their tragic history in just the simplest of conversations. Their interactions were some of the best of the production.For those unfamiliar with the tale, Jessica Chastain plays Catherine, a plain, soft-spoken  woman who lives with her father, Dr. Sloper (David Strathairn), who blames her for the death of her mother and whose kindness is barely masking the pain he has. Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens) a handsome young man begins to take interest in Catherine and they soon fall in love, which is problematic because Dr. Sloper only believes he is after her inheritance. Where the play goes from their I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that there were some fascinating turns in the story.

However, I only feel like these interactions were great because I know the source material and the dynamite script. The actors, under the direction of Moises Kaufman, choose to make some interesting vocal and character motivational choices that left me scratching my head. Jessica Chastain, under a rough wig, adopts such an affected voice and deliberate manner that screams “I am a plain-spoken woman who has been treated badly.” Considering how different theater acting is from film, I understand why she chooses to make this choice, but it felt as if there was a barrier between the performance she was giving and what I was experiencing watching her. Dan Stevens, as the playboy suitor, has the toughest job in the cast to play someone whose motivations and allegiances shift, depending on the time and place. His attempt at doing so makes him feel more like a “golly gee!” school boy rather than a man who is trying to balance the love of material things with his feelings toward Catherine. It’s tough because Stevens is as magnetic here as he is on Downton, but It felt like he was only scratching the surface of his character’s motivations

The main bright spot of the ensemble is Judith Ivey, as the hopelessly romantic widowed Aunt Lavinia. Any time she’s on stage the two-time Tony Award winner threatens to chew all the scenery and walk away with the show.

All in all, this certainly isn’t a bad revival, but its tough to justify if there is anything new to gain from this story considering what I witnessed. Certainly worthy of a discount ticket, if only to see your favorite actors live in person.

The Heiress is currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre on W 48th St.