With the short novel Washington Square, published in 1880, Henry James had not yet hit the grand stride of his turn-of-the-century work. James later disparaged the book: its conflicts were too basic. But dramatic clarity is what has made it so successful in adaptation, notably the 1947 play The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which was turned into a supreme 1949 movie starring Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, a young woman diminished by her father, Dr Austin Sloper, for lack of grace.
In the play’s rather bloodless new revival on Broadway, directed by Moisés Kaufman, Jessica Chastain is Catherine. Although Chastain has accrued acclaim for some showy film roles, hers is not a conventional beauty, and, with an assist from minimal make-up, it is easy to see why Dr Sloper would find her wanting. When Catherine appears in a cherry-red dress (the production’s sumptuous costumes are by Albert Wolsky) and angles for a compliment, Dr Sloper says that her sainted mother, who died after giving birth to Catherine and to whom she has been slightingly compared her whole life, “dominated” the colour.
Chastain strives to imbue Catherine with an inner life, so that we will feel her transformation from shy young lady to determined holder of $30,000 a year. But when she kisses Morris Townsend, the penniless blade who has arrived in the Sloper drawing room, at New York’s Washington Square in the autumn of 1850, there is no hint of fires being fanned. Dramatically, it may be sufficient for Catherine to accept Morris in marriage because she aches to escape her loveless father. Emotionally, we need to feel a more sensual pull towards perdition.
That I did not has as much to do with Dan Stevens, who portrays Townsend, as with Chastain. Familiar as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, Stevens effortlessly conveys intelligence. He is handsome. It is easy to see why women eye him. As Morris, he is convincingly American. But sexually magnetic? Hmm.
David Strathairn delivers Dr Sloper’s unthinking digs at his daughter with just the right hint of bitter malevolence. As Aunt Penniman, Judith Ivey biddies about like Aunt Pitty-Pat in Gone with the Wind. Only Dee Nelson, as Morris’s sister, offers the ambivalence that The Heiress must convey to do justice to Jamesian devastation.