There have been many dramatizations of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, most notably the masterful 1949 film The Heiress, directed to within an inch of its life by William Wyler. He helped Olivia de Havilland give the performance of her career as Catherine Sloper, an awkward girl who hardens into a strong, embittered woman under the influence of her belittling father (a terrifying Ralph Richardson) and a mercenary fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift). Wyler’s film was based on a stage adaptation of James's book by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and their play was revived on Broadway in 1995, where it made Cherry Jones a star. I didn’t see that production, but her performance is still remembered by many as a highlight of their theatergoing lives.
And so Jessica Chastain, who plays the role of Catherine in this new Broadway revival (through February 10), is up against memories of Jones and de Havilland. Chastain was all over several movies last year, most notably Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where she played the beatific mother, and this new production of The Heiress has been put together as a showcase for her. It's her Broadway debut.
Alas, Chastain proves tentative, wan and inadequate here. Wearing little to no make-up, she’s acceptable when sketching in Catherine’s early social inadequacies, speaking in a kind of disembodied voice. But when Catherine needs to change, to harden under the effects of her father’s cruelty, Chastain is totally unequipped to do it, technically and vocally. In many of the later scenes, she’s like a drama student in an acting class who keeps trying to cry. She certainly gets no help from her costars: David Strathairn, who plays her father, and Judith Ivey, who plays her Aunt Penniman, give drab, clichéd, conventional performances. Moisés Kaufman directs the play poorly, not even bothering to give the actors some lifelike blocking; in far too many scenes the performers simply stand motionless and face each other to talk for long periods.
The Goetzes's adaptation runs to nearly three hours and is filled with unnecessary exposition and extraneous lines that highlight some of James’s louder ironies. Consequently, this play calls for detailed, razor-sharp acting, but there isn’t any nuance to be found in the performances here. Toward the end, as Chastain fumbled through Catherine’s last scenes, the only refuge I had was in remembering de Havilland’s unforgettable phrasings of certain lines, particularly the mordant way she says, “Yes, I can be very cruel, I have been taught… by masters.” No doubt Jones got a lot out of these lines, too, but Chastain is depressingly unable to make this character come to life. Given Broadway prices, you'd be better off renting the Wyler film.