Now on Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theater, is a revival of “The Heiress,” a play adapted from Henry James’s well-known novel Washington Square. The book itself James was not that partial to but it is considered one of his most well known. The play stars Jessica Chastain, David Straitharn, Dan Stevens and Judith Ivey and it opened November 1st to fairly mixed reviews yet it sounds worth seeing. (Has anyone read the book? It’s a bit dour tho’ much centers around, of course, Washington Square.)
From the New York Times review:
It doesn’t hurt that the book that inspired this play has always been a crowd pleaser, much to the distaste of the man who wrote it. “Washington Square” (1880) is Henry James for people who usually can’t abide Henry James. It is written in a straightforward, cozy style that has little to do with the labyrinthine interior explorations of later James. Short and perfectly constructed, it builds to a quietly harrowing climax that anticipates the genteel, ironic-twist revenge tales of W. Somerset Maugham.
James’s story of a woman who loses her heart and finds her dignity was transformed by the Goetzes into an enduring war horse for the stage (and has been far more successful than any of James’s own ventures into playwriting). It has since been revived on Broadway on three previous occasions and is the basis for the warmly remembered 1949 William Wyler film.
The part of Catherine — who defies her father in her love for a penniless suitor — has tended to be an awards magnet. Olivia de Havilland copped an Oscar for it, and Cherry Jones won the Tony for the 1995 revival. It is a role in which charismatic actresses hide their lights under bushels of drabness before fanning them into climactic flames in the second act. Ms. Jones’s performance, which featured an explosion of repressed emotion I’m still reeling from, turned her virtually overnight into Broadway’s leading dramatic actress.
For the moment such laurels would seem to be out of Ms. Chastain’s reach.
Fifty-two years after “Guy Domville,” Henry James’s most ambitious play, got him booed off a London stage, he finally struck it rich on Broadway—posthumously. “The Heiress,” adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from “Washington Square,” James’s 1880 novella about a plain young woman of means who is courted and jilted by a gold-digging suitor, ran for a year in New York, after which William Wyler turned it into one of the finest screen versions of a classic ever to be made in Hollywood. The original play has since been revived several times on Broadway, most recently in the unforgettable 1995 Lincoln Center Theater production that made Cherry Jones a star. Now it’s receiving a big-name revival featuring Jessica Chastain. Though I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the results, this production, which is uneven but not unrewarding, will at least serve to introduce those who don’t know “The Heiress” to its manifold excellences.
It’s remarkable that the Goetzes were able to transform so elegantly turned a book as “Washington Square” into a fully stageworthy play, and even more remarkable that they contrived to do so without compromising its essence. Not only did they incorporate much of James’s dialogue into the script, but they also stuck close to his plot, adding only two neat and very effective touches of climactic melodrama. …
“The Heiress” is so fine a play that it is capable of making a strong impression even in a flawed production. That’s what happens here. Ms. Ivey is a knockout, and Mr. Strathairn is always worth seeing, even when, as is the case this time around, he fumbles the interpretive ball. But anyone who knows Mr. Wyler’s wonderful film version, or who was lucky enough to see “The Heiress” on Broadway in 1995, will know—and regret—what is missing from this revival.
Washington Square has quite a history in theater and film (Wikipedia):
Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for a very successful play, The Heiress, originally performed on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller as Catherine and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Sloper, and revived a number of times since.
The play was adapted for film in 1949, and starred Olivia de Havilland as Catherine, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as Morris. William Wyler directed. Both play and movie hewed closely to the novel and cribbed many of the best lines directly from James’ dialogue. However, the Goetz version does make a few changes to the story and to the character of Catherine, making her angry enough to refuse to see her father on his deathbed, and clever enough to devise a ruse to revenge herself on Morris.
Polish director Agnieszka Holland made another major movie version in 1997, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin, with Maggie Smith as Mrs. Penniman. While this film also takes some liberties with the original text, it is in the main a more faithful adaptation.
Currently showing at the Walter Kerr Theater 219 West 48th Street until February 10th. The Heiress website
A note: The New York Times‘ review says that Catherine (the main character in Washington Square) “finds her dignity” through her travails. It’s been a few years but that was not my impression reading the book.