24 November 2012

'The Heiress' (1976 & 2006)

[On 1 November, a new revival of The Heiress opened at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.  A popular script, there have been numerous revivals both on Broadway and elsewhere around the U.S. and Canada.  I’ve seen two of them, one not long after I arrived in New York City, and I thought it might be fun to look back at them.  My performance postings on ROT aren’t usually reviews—I expressly call then “reports” to make this point—but the first piece here, from May 1976, is an unpublished review of a short-lived Broadway production.  The second, from 2006, is a report from the same Shaw Festival at which I saw the revivals of Noel Coward’s Design for Living (reported on ROT, 29 March) and the two Shaw plays Arms and the Man and Too True To Be Good (“Two Shaw Plays (Shaw Festival 2006),” 25 September).  (Those two posts, excerpts from a longer report on the festival visit, contain some observations about the Shaw Festival that I haven’t republished here.)]

7 MAY 1976

In this age of theatrical revivals, the supply was bound to run thin sooner or later.  The producers must be getting close to the bottom of the barrel with Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress (based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square and currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre).  The play is predictable, plodding, and cliché-ridden in its handling of the mid-nineteenth-century story of a plain, awkward girl, Catherine Sloper (Jane Alexander), wooed and almost won by fortune-hunter Morris Townsend (David Selby) until father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Kiley), threatens to disinherit her and the ardent suitor skips to California.

What saves the evening—and elevates it beyond expectations—are the performances of Alexander and Kiley.  Kiley’s Dr. Sloper is a sardonic, resentful man, bitter toward daughter Catherine who is a reminder that his beloved wife died bearing her. He has no respect for his daughter and has wasted no love on heronly tolerance.  Kiley has a way of walking onto the setor just sitting down in a chairthat makes us realize he is master of both the Sloper household and the Broadhurst stage.

Until her father’s death, Alexander’s Catherine is dutiful, submissive and obedient (albeit ineffectual). Her ungainly gait, awkward stance, and graceless manner are portrayed with sensitive care and completeness.  When Townsend jilts her, she realizes that not only does he not love her, but neither does her father.  At her father’s death, she inherits not only his money, but his control and mastery.  When Townsend returns, she now has the strength, wisdom, and fortitude to spurn him.  She also has the cruelty to do it big and bold.  The transformation is handled with smoothness and credibility by Alexander.

Other performances support father and daughter nicely.  Of particular note is Jan Miner’s Aunt Lavinia Penniman (recognizable as “Madge the Manicurist” of TV commercials).  Only Selby’s suitor is unconvincing.  His movement and speech belie his nineteenth-century costumes, and his casualness is too often that of a late-twentieth-century stud, not a mid-nineteenth-century fortune-hunter.

George Keathley’s direction is another problem.  As the play is slow, the directing should not compound the problem by being deliberate and meticulously-paced.  The work is nice, comfortable and pleasantbut slow.  Why, for instance, does Keathley insist on having the curtain dropped between each scene?  No set changes are necessary and this adds to the slowness.

The set (by Oliver Smith) is simple and elegant, but the lighting (designed by David F. Segal) has one unfortunate major flaw.  When Aunt Penniman and Catherine look out the stage-right window for Townsend’s carriage, the lights shine in like anachronistic automobile headlights. 

All this comes back to the original question: why do this show?  It has no apparent connection to today’s world.  Catherine is no liberated womaneven in her ultimate freedom she is a victim.  There seems no reason to bring the show back.  And the audiences are staying away to prove it.  If sterling performances can make you forget a mediocre scriptthen by all means catch Alexander and Kiley.  But do so before too longThe Heiress is not destined for a long run.  [In fact, this production of The Heiress, which opened on 20 April 1976, closed on 9 May, two days after I wrote this review—after 23 regular performances and 5 previews.  ~Rick]

24 AUGUST 2006

On Thursday evening, 24 August 2006, the Round House Theatre group from Bethesda, Maryland, saw the Shaw Festival’s revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress at the Royal George Theatre in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake.  (We sat down center—and a tall man sat in front of my mother, just as she predicted would happen!)  I didn't see the 1995 Lincoln Center revival with Cherry Jones, but in April 1976 I did see the Broadway transfer from the Kennedy Center.  (I even wrote a review of it for my criticism class at Rutgers; I still have it stashed in some file.  [This, obviously, is the review published above.  ~Rick])  I remember the performances pretty well—especially Richard Kiley's Dr. Sloper and Jan ("Madge the Manicurist") Miner's Aunt Penniman.  (I had to remind myself that Jane Alexander played Catherine, however.  I'll have to look up my old review to see if there's a reason I forgot that.)

Okay, enough reminiscing!  (Never, never! I hear you cry.  What good is life if you can't reminisce?)  Back to the Shaw.  And back to the show, too.  This production of The Heiress, directed by Joseph Ziegler and designed (sets and costumes) by Christina Poddubiuk, is generally excellent.  It's a melodrama, of course, and the company plays the emotions appropriately.  Catherine Sloper (Tara Rosling, who, when not made up to look plain, resembles Lynn Redgrave) does a fine job of being the painfully shy and awkward young woman who learns from her father how to be hard and untrusting.  Dr. Sloper (Michael Ball), who is less of a cold martinet than Kiley was 30 years ago, is not only convincing as the father who believes he's protecting his inadequately-equipped child from the cruelties of the world, he comes very close to being sympathetic—until he actually tells his daughter outright that he doesn't respect her.  (Kiley was so frosty and unfeeling in the role, it's a wonder his Catherine didn't become Ilse Koch.)  What this seems to do to the play is make it more credible, despite its contrivances.  Even Aunt Penniman (Donna Belleville) is less a ditz than Miner was—although she still can't help falling for Morris's lies and charm.  (Belleville does suggest in her manner that she knows Townsend's a cad and a fortune-hunter but fears that, unless Catherine accepts him anyway, she will never find any kind of love.  She may have caught her brother's disease in this regard.)  In any case, once again the production is a superb example of ensemble playing, with every character taking the requisite focus when he is the center of dramatic attention and ceding it when she is not.  If ever "there are no small parts" were true, it is true here.

The one hole in the production is Mike Shara as Morris Townsend, Catherine's suitor.  He has two problems that render his performance out of synch with the rest, and which I see as actual acting weaknesses.  (He is also Sergius in Arms and the Man, and the traits I spotted here were again in evidence—though less detrimentally due to the character and play—so I believe my evaluation is correct.  It's odd, but Sergius, also a cad, is the farcical version of Morris Townsend, the character Shara plays in Heiress.  One works acceptably, the other doesn't.)  Shara's first problem is that he, alone among the Shaw company, cannot or does not put his (very pronounced) Canadian accent aside for the role.  It's a pet peeve of mine that some Canadians who play Americans—and the Brits seem to use them a lot—don't make a point of talking like Americans.  If they can't do it, they shouldn't take the role.  I don't know if they can't hear the difference and think they're speaking like us southerners or if they just figure the accents are so close to one another, no one will notice and they can just get away with it.  Well, as GBS would say: pshaw!  Shara's second problem is his voice.  I'm not sure I can describe this adequately, but he has a very strange voice—it almost sounds phony (the way Carol Wayne, the woman who used to appear on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and claimed she couldn't talk above a baby-doll whisper, seemed fake).  He has kind of a high tenor—I guess that's a lyric tenor—but it doesn't sound quite natural.  It's a little like he's doing Dudley Do-Right (from the cartoon—I don't know what Brendan Fraser in the movie sounded like) for real!  The best way I can characterize Shara's voice is to say that it sounds to me like a musical actor delivering lines between songs.  (He has no musicals in his credits—and he's been at the Shaw for 13 seasons.)  I don't know if that communicates.

Since I've been mentioning the sets, I should note that this one is fine without being extraordinary.  (They don't all have to be, after all.  [One of my general remarks in the full report was that the set designing was exceptional at the festival.  ~Rick])  It's a perfectly standard Realistic box and makes a perfect environment for the story without calling attention to itself in any way.  The costumes, though—especially the women's—are admirable.  They aren't showy—they shouldn't be in this play (except for Catherine's "cherry red" dress in act one)—but they just seem correct for each instance.

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