“The Heiress” – on the boards in New York

8.22am, Monday 8th October, 46th Street, Theatre District, Manhattan, NY, NY, USA

Morning folks, and we have a spectacular blue sky day out there for the Columbus Day parade later on. But here – for the Downton Abbey faithful back at home, the Boulder Book Club in Colorado (you know who you are gals), and everyone else that I promised – is the War and Peace length review of yesterday afternoon’s preview performance of “The Heiress” at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It didn’t start out as an epic, it just ran out that way until about 1.30am this morning. Anyway, here we go, just as I wrote it out …

Sitting here late on a drizzly old Sunday night just hours after seeing this afternoon’s (second) preview of “The Heiress”, I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt that I have no time whatsoever for Dr Austin Sloper! Who’s he? Nasty piece of work actually. But let me introduce you properly. He’s an eminent pediatrician and head of the household at 16 Washington Square, very smart address in the Manhattan of 1881- which is where “The Heiress” is set – based on a tale written by Henry James and originally published as “Washington Square”. To cut a really long and tangled story short, Dr Sloper – widowed during the birth of his only child – lives with his clucky mother hen of a sister Lavinia, and the daughter Catherine – now of an extremely marriageable age – in a drop dead gorgeously opulent mansion on Washington Square. All sound a bit run of the mill ordinary so far? Ha! Let me also introduce Dr Sloper’s bubbly niece Marion and her dullard fiancé Arthur, who drop by to visit the household – and even more interestingly – Arthur’s dapper and charismatic cousin Morris Townsend, who just happens to tag along.

Are you still with me folks, as now we’re about to get amongst it! Let’s start with Morris – played with a wide puppy dog eyed full frontal ‘I’m completely enamored with your address, every single luscious trapping of your lifestyle … oh … and you’ assault wrapped up in a pretty reasonable American accent by our man Dan Stevens. He delivers Morris as having the obvious emotional depth of a rain puddle, and is quite open about completely blowing whatever inheritance he was due on his recent completely self indulgent ‘I’ve just wreaked glamorous havoc across Europe doing copious amounts of wine, women, song and Art’ tour … because he could! He’s landed on his good looking feet back in Manhattan as a man of absolutely no means, but charming to a fault. Family connections have given him access to Dr Sloper’s household, and one look at the shy plain Jane but prime social position real estate doctor’s daughter on first meeting, and Morris says “Uh huh … .jackpot!” , or whatever the 1881 equivalent would be. Any rate – you get the picture.

Which brings me to the dowdy and socially clumsy but fabulous at embroidery doctor’s daughter and object of Morris’s sealed beam of affection – Catherine. She’s played with painfully pregnant conversation pauses and flyaway hair, always looking for escape to solitary safe haven by Jessica Chastain – in complete contrast to her absolutely poised and beautiful persona off stage! Catherine is nothing short of thrilled to bits when after only two weeks of fairly constant attention, our Morris declares his undying love, illustrates his feelings with a seriously forward for the times kiss to her lips … and proposes marriage! He’s not sparing the horses with his quest for residency at 16 Washington Square! And bless her cotton socks, Catherine’s loving it! Up to now, she’s been treated as mere familial baggage by Dr Sloper, and she’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of ever living up to the image of the captivating creature that was her mother – her father makes sure of reminding her of that on a regular basis! Oh and did I mention that the good doctor has – on at least one occasion – actually dumped the responsibility for his wife’s death on Catherine?

No wonder I don’t like the man at all!

Which brings me back to where I started. Dr Sloper is a nasty old jaded and bitter shell of a man, played going through the world weary motions by the immensely talented David – unforgettable in ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, but I even liked him as Whistler in ‘Sneakers’ – Strathairn. He barely tolerates his daughter, and despairs of her ever becoming clever and amounting to anything … until our blue eyed silver tongue Morris enters the picture and threatens to snare the girl – along with her massive inheritance! Then he starts to pay attention and decides to nip what he sees as the big payoff romance for gold digger Morris in the bud! Basically he takes the gloves off and tells young Catherine “you’re nothing whatsoever to look at, your conversational skills are non existent, the man is only interested in one thing and that’s your money”! Yep … he let her down gently! True story – Dr Sloper is unforgivingly condescending, and if he can’t have love in his own life, he’s going to make damn sure that Catherine’s not going to get it in hers!

So we cut to the long winded chase.

Dr Sloper threatens to pull the money if Catherine marries Morris, but she’s already kissed the boy and is completely ready to roll into wedded bliss with him – with or without the inheritance. Let’s face it, she gets unlimited access to long legs, short back, clean cut ‘you better believe I know exactly what I’m doing with the ladies ‘ Morris! Who wouldn’t dive in head first? But here’s where it all starts to get a bit sticky. The Doc fronts Morris and gives him both barrels – “I’m on to you, my daughter is no prize at all, you’re only after the money, you don’t make the grade, so clear off and don’t come back”. But Morris is pretty sure of his ground and fires back with “all I have to do is crook my finger and I’ll be off with Cath under one arm and the fortune under the other”. So the Doc puts it to Cath that she should travel to France with him on a business trip for 6 months, hoping that out of sight out of mind might make her re-evaluate Morris as suitable husband material. And in a rare moment of strength, Morris tells her to go – completely confident in the hold that he has on Cath’s affections!

And that folks … was the first half. I was emotionally worn out already, but on the edge of the seat. The cast had done a red hot job, as we’d laughed in all the right places, but winced in more as the Doc’s barbs had landed left right and centre. Would Cath cool off? Would the Doc have an uncharacteristic compassionate moment and allow Cath her attractive suitor? And by the way, did I mention how seriously good the set is? Just for one afternoon we slid back through the twilight zone to the lush front parlor complete with columns, textured wallpaper and the sound of horse drawn carriages in the street outside. We were right there cleaning the chandelier and lighting the lamps with the maid – let alone holding our breath every time Cath raced up and down the stairs lifting those whiz band period costume skirts!

And then it was all on for young and old!

Cath comes back from France to find Morris with well laid ‘let’s just elope’ plans. She’s good to go, and let’s Morris know that under those circumstances there will be no inheritance but that doesn’t matter one bit – because they’ll be living on love! He takes stock of the situation, tells her to pack her bags and he’ll be back in a New York minute with the carriage and horses – first stop … to tie the runaway knot. You can guess the rest. No money means no Morris, and he wangles his way to California on a different gold digging mission – leaving Cath high and dry. Finally realizing that Morris has jilted her, Cath falls completely apart. Not pretty. Especially as the Doc doesn’t miss the opportunity to add more confidence destroying insult to Cath’s shattered heart injury.

But never fear dear reader. The worm turns full circle. The Doc self diagnoses a terminal illness and dies. Morris slides back into town from California and runs those “I never for a moment stopped thinking about you” lines at a much tougher Cath, proposing to literally pick up with where they left off … on the way to the altar! And gals – our Cath plays along, planting one right on that delectable but double talking mouth attached to Morris. She tells him to pack and hurry back, they can be going to the chapel within the hour – and he’s off like the hounds of hell are after him – it’s all going to happen for him after all. Little does he know.

Guess what happens when he actually does come back to Washington Square this time?

Yep – Cath bolts the door and exits the game with dignity and revenge on poor old Morris – left tragically calling her name as the lamps go down.

But wait!

Did she triumph in the end, or did she cut her nose off to spite her face? If it was me, I’d have given some serious thought to taking the matinee idol looks and excellent companionship for life that was Morris – even with all his fortune hunter shortcomings – because ‘true love’ only happens in fairytales! Doesn’t it?

Whew! After all of that, the only thing to do folks … was applaud! What a sensational way to spend a Sunday afternoon! Now I think we have to acknowledge that the rumors are true. Jessica Chastain is the new Meryl Streep. She’s only pint sized but has a mountain of stage presence – and took us right along with her on poor young Catherine’s tear sodden emotional roller coaster. Tremendous Broadway debut! And David Strathairn did the job well, because several times during that 3 hour performance – I just wanted to leap up there and spear the Doc through the wall – unfeeling man! And Dan Stevens? There was no way that Morris could get the gal! Not worthy! Next time you come back after disappearing for two years without a word – beg, grovel, be desperate, come up with new material! But I still felt just a twinge of sorry for him when he was abandoned by the heiress. Why? Because Dan Stevens seems to have a knack for taking a character that’s flawed – exposing those flaws in all their glory – and still maneuvers you into being on side and wanting them to win in the end! How does he do that! Just like his Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey. At times that character can be smug, self righteous, and even a bit cruel. But you stay with Matthew because the actor convinces you to. So well done Dan!

Yep, they got me … along with everyone else in the sold out house. And later on, when Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens signed a stack of autographs at the stage door – nothing but old school grace and charm. Seriously glad I went, and still can’t believe the dates coincided with the scheduling of our Yalumba events for this week in New York! Happy days!

There you go. And here’s the ticket kids – that’s row 5 front centre! And the mandatory autograph – going straight up on the wall at home!

See ya when we’re talking to the top end trade later on this evening at ‘Public’ restaurant downtown.

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7 responses to ““The Heiress” – on the boards in New York

  1. Love ya work JMF – what a fabulous review!!
    I look forward to viewing ‘Dan Da Man’s’ autograph.
    from the Downton Abbey Faithful

    • Wow Jane! Thank you for writing a thrilling recap of the play, you make us feel like we’re all right there with you eyes popping out of our heads too! Me thinks you should be a theater critic on the side!

      • yalumbastories

        Thanks Di – I kept in mind that a lot of folks won’t make it to the Walter Kerr Theatre in person to see this show, so I tried to take y’all with me!

    • Thanks kid – still can’t get over the luck of being in the right place at the right time!

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