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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Broadway Review: The Heiress

Everyone is in full-on Downton Abbey mode, and for all you Matthew Cawley lovers, if you are in New York City before February 10th, you have the opportunity to see Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew, on Broadway in The Heiress.

The show is filled with fantastic actors who are having a good year. Jessica Chastain just won a Golden Globe Award as Best Actress for Zero Dark Thirty, and she stars as Catherine Sloper, the titular heiress. Catherine is a shy young lady who has not attracted any suitable suitors. She lives with her father, played by David Straitharn, who brilliantly plays William Seward in the movie Lincoln. 

Based on Henry James classic novel Washington Square, it is set in the Washington Square area of New York City in the mid-1800s. Straitharn is amazing as Dr. Sloper, who has no confidence in his daughter's ability to attract and marry an appropriate man. Dr. Sloper may love his daughter, but he frequently bullies her, putting her down and undermining her confidence. He doesn't love her for whom she is, he pushes her to be someone else.

The incredible part of Straitharn's performance is that even as he is saying horrible things to his daughter, things that made the audience groan and gasp in shock, he still manages to make his character somewhat sympathetic. I doubt many other actors could pull that off as well as Straitharn does. He makes you believe he loves his daughter even if you don't want to believe it.

Stevens is Morris Townsend, a suitor who lacks money. The ultimate question is does he love Catherine or is he only after her money? Those who are familiar with his good guy character from Downton Abbey want to believe he truly loves her, and Stevens uses that belief to good effect. The audience is kept in suspense, wanting to believe in him, yet having that nugget of doubt.

It is Chastain who is a wonder. A beautiful woman, she hides behind a prosthetic nose and unattractive wig as Catherine. She plays the shy, unassuming heiress who lives to please her father, although it seems to be out of her grasp to do so. Her father's constant comparison of Catherine to her deceased mother is troubling. Her character shows the most growth in the play, as she falls deeply in love with Morris and this love allows her blossom and become her own woman.

The play gives us a fascinating glimpse into the social mores of the time period, and I loved not only the costumes but the set design as well. The actors are all brilliant, and the last scene of the play will have you on the edge of your seat. I would not be surprised to see Chastain, Straitharn and Stevens all nominated for Tonys, they are all that good.

The only regret I have is that Judith Ivey, who usually plays the key role of Aunt Lavinia, was not performing at the show. I would have loved to have seen her performance.

After leaving the show, I put Washington Square on my Kindle, so I hope to have a review of that in the future. There are discount tickets for this show, but it is one I would pay full-price to see.


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