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Theater Review: The Heiress Can’t Make Jessica Chastain a Mouse

David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain in The Heiress. Photo: Joan Marcus

There’s unmarriageable and then there’s unmarriageable: The Catherine Sloper of Henry James’s Washington Square is an 1850s heiress of “plain, dull, gentle countenance” who “devoted her pocket money to the purchase of cream cakes” and is “decidedly not clever.” The Catherine Sloper of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play The Heiress (which is merely “suggested” by Washington Square) is a bright young thing buried under a bushel of insecurities, crippled by an awkward fashion sense and near-cataleptic social anxiety. (In William Wyler’s film version, Olivia de Havilland was slapped with a pair of Mike Dukakis eyebrows to uglify her into premature spinsterhood.)

Now comes The Help’s Jessica Chastain, the latest slightly nontraditional beauty to play the ostensibly uncomely Catherine: She gets a frizzy wig and a stammer-y, standoffish way with strangers. Is this enough to make her convincingly unappealing in the withering gaze of her father (David Strathairn)? Enough to make us suspect the motives of her one suitor, the asymmetrically Apollonian, strangely passionate, dangerously unemployed Morris Townshend (Downton Abbey’s not-quite-Apollonian Dan Stevens)? Enough to make us wonder if Morris is just a gigolo with his eye on dowdy Catherine’s dough?

In a word, no. But then, Moisés Kaufman’s solid, starchy, ever-so-slightly stilted new production of The Heiress is all about tweaking the play’s character chemistry, though never violently enough upset the Goetzes’ formula: They took James’s minor tragedy of naive romanticism colliding with extravagant ambition and chilly spiritual thrift, and condensed it into a highly effective melodrama about self-esteem. That formula remains intact, despite some tinkering and a less than intuitive array of leads. Like many a Broadway chestnut roast, The Heiress is handsomely done, more than competent, and not unaffecting. But the story itself takes care of that: What’s unclear is whether it’s succeeding due to Kaufman’s gentle revisions or in spite of them.

Take Dr. Sloper, who, as played by Strathairn, is about as far from Ralph Richardson’s glittering semi-sadist as one can get. Sloper, as written, seems to genuinely enjoy slipping the knife in. With a forehead kiss and a surgically selected barb, he’s constantly reminding his doting daughter just how far short she falls in every department: looks, brains, charm, talent. Strathairn, on the other hand, simply lets his poison leak passive-aggressively into conversation. He’s almost half-lidded, quietly but ruthlessly dismissive of all romanticism (save his own), and he seems less the towering misogynist than a put-upon nebbish, positively overwhelmed by the many women in his life. (Especially his meddling sister Lavinia, played lip-smackingly by Judith Ivey, cooing and leering and mugging like the Wife of Bath.) Lacking the liver for a frontal assault, Strathairn’s Sloper eats away at his daughter’s spirit with weary dismay. He pegs the handsome Townshend as a “fortune hunter” the second he takes an interest in Catherine; a man that good-looking could only be interested in a creature as unprepossessing as his daughter for her inheritance.

This is where casting starts to rear its not-quite-ugly head: Stevens is a perfectly pleasant-looking fellow, but he lacks a certain animal magnetism. His period Americanese is stentorian, almost nerdy, and his mouth hangs open guilelessly, like a kid contemplating his Christmas presents. He’s simply not a seducer, and his motives seem a bit too plain from the start; Morris, as a character, isn’t a very deep mystery, but there should be more intrigue to him than Stevens is supplying. He’s not really a peacock, nor a wolf, nor a wheedler — he’s just a young gentleman at the door, announcing himself a little too loudly. We certainly believe Chastain’s Catherine would be bowled over by him at first: She’s bowled over by everything, completely flummoxed by the opposite sex, and can barely complete a sentence when a man is in the room. But I, for one, didn’t buy that she’d stay bowled over. Even in a wig that looks like it blew out from under the fridge, Chastain has an elfin glamour about her. It doesn’t just rub off. She’s marvelously put together on stage, and her final scenes — where Catherine finally declares her independence from the vampiric men who’ve ruined her life — are very well done, sometimes just shy of devastating. But she’s simply more than a match for the flimsy gentlemen who hem her in, and we can feel punches being pulled in this battle of wills. Kaufman almost corrals his three leads into the same play, and almost is enough for a strong evening. But it’s not quite a happy marriage.

Meanwhile, across town, another odd match is in the offing, and another frizzy misfit is caught in the middle. Bad Jews, a small black comedy about legacy and grievance, assimilation and envy, is full of savory anger and lit-up language — a very promising start by newcomer Joshua Harmon. It’s also a showcase for an actress-to-watch, Tracee Chimo (Harvey, Circle Mirror Transformation), who’s created — in the tiny Black Box of the Roundabout Underground — a monster. Despite what you’ve seen in the movies, making a monster doesn’t happen by accident — not on stage, anyway. Chimo, from the tips of her toes to the attenuated split ends of her Gilda Radner mane, has fashioned a golem for the ages in Daphna, an apparition sprung from Philip Roth’s worst nightmares. Skating the razor’s edge of offense, Chimo is a funnel-cloud of frizzy fury: Her Daphna — recently known to the world as “Diane” — has experienced an undergraduate recommitment to Judaism, thrown in some undergrad feminism and Occupy class rage, and emerged armored and ready for battle. Her objective is the recovery of a family heirloom from her wealthy, irreligious, indifferently assimilated cousin Liam (Michael Zegen): He’s goaded her by not only arriving late for the funeral of their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, but by bringing along his girlfriend and intended, the translucent goyess Melody (Molly Ranson). An artful provocateur and an artless noodge, Daphna is a terror and a treat, a new kind of Millennial zealot who lives heroically in her own echo chamber. She’s a force of nature — or, depending on your beliefs, an act of God. Liam, a pocket-misogynist and unrepentant shiksaficionado, is no slouch himself in the villainy department, and when monster meets monster, as Tennessee Williams wrote, one must give way. (Looking on, Philip Ettinger is superbly ambushed-looking as Liam’s peacemaker little brother, and Ranson, late of Carrie, holds her fire like a champ — until she’s pushed just a little too far.) Harmon writes with real loathing, both self-directed and radiant, loathing on a racial, germ-cell level. His energies are just barely under control, but he has a lot of energy, and storehouses of style. (And his work here benefits from being judiciously governed by the steady hand of Daniel Aukin.) The play is buttoned a little neatly, and wouldn’t sustain more than its slim 100 minutes anyway. But there is craft and power here. I came away from Bad Jews a little scared of Daphna, of Harmon, and of myself.

THE HEIRESS is at the Walter Kerr through February 10.

BAD JEWS is playing at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre through December 16.

Theater Review: Jessica Chastain in The Heiress