Monday, April 21, 2014

Another Heiress: Victoria Stewart's Rich Girl

Amelia Broome, Sasha Castroverde, Joe Short, and Celeste Oliva in Rich Girl. (Photo by Mark S. Howard)

Victoria Stewart’s Rich Girl, which is receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage, is a contemporary version of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s superb 1947 dramatization of the Henry James novella Washington Square. Standing in for James’s heroine, Catherine Sloper, a retiring, socially awkward young woman who falls for a fortune hunter, is Claudine (Sasha Castroverde), the titular rich girl who is swept off her feet by an actor and theatre director named Henry (Joe Short). Catherine’s brilliant, icy father, who sizes up her suitor – and whose wisdom about the match is inseparable from what she correctly assesses to be a contempt for her – has become Eve (Amelia Broome), who runs a foundation that employs Claudine and hosts a popular show about finance.

James’s famous story has proven to be remarkably serviceable for updating. Law and Order creator and writer Dick Wolf turned it into a cunning, twisty little murder mystery in 1988 called Masquerade, with Meg Tilly as the heiress, John Glover as her unscrupulous guardian and Rob Lowe as the moneyless suitor. (Masquerade never drew much notice, but it’s very enjoyable.) Stewart’s version is a little like The Heiress crossed with Gossip Girl – though Claudine is a decade older than the Upper East Side kids in that TV series. And through the first act it’s quite clever, despite the occasional awkwardness of Courtney O’Connor’s staging. Stewart lightens the material, and she has a real inspiration about what to do with the silly, doting aunt who leaps into the role of duenna in Catherine and Morris Townsend’s love story: Aunt Penniman becomes Maggie (Celeste Oliva, in a buoyant performance), Eve’s assistant and Claudine’s confidante, who feels loyalty to both her boss and the love-struck girl she has watched grow up, ill at ease in her own skin. And instead of taking the heiress on a trip to Europe in the hopes of wearing away at her romantic passion for an unsuitable fiancĂ©, Eve dangles a three-month African tour (of organizations that her foundation supports) that Claudine has expressed an interest in.

Sasha Castroverde and Joe Short (Photo: Mark S. Howard)
The play is a four-hander; Stewart hasn’t bothered to find equivalents for Dr. Sloper’s other sister or Morris’s sister, a reluctant interviewee when Sloper wants to get confirmation of his assessment of Morris’s worthlessness. And, the way she’s set up her scheme for bringing the narrative into the twenty-first century, she doesn’t need to. But things go wrong after intermission. Instead of finding ways of embroidering on the James plot, Stewart essentially reproduces it. The comedy of manners turns into straight melodrama with a few sloppy farce scenes tossed in. And the big confrontation between mother and daughter in which Claudine suddenly realizes that her mother feels no love for her at all just doesn’t play. For one thing, Claudine, unlike Catherine Sloper, isn’t exactly a candidate for spinsterhood (if there were such a category in this day and age): she’s bright, witty, capable, hardly unattractive – despite the dyed hair that she affects as a rebellion against her mother – and Henry isn’t the first man she’s ever slept with. Stewart makes her a klutz, but only when she happens to think of it (once in each act), and those scenes are so badly staged that they don’t work at all. And Eve’s treatment of Claudine isn’t just brusque and exasperated and dismissive; it’s downright mean.

All four of the actors seem to have been cast right, but to a greater or lesser degree they all struggle with the text except for Oliva. Broome is skillful and has the right golden-girl dazzle for Eve, but she never quite finds the right tone for the character. But to be fair, getting us to buy Eve as a three-dimensional character rather than a villainess is an uphill battle. Dr. Sloper’s treatment of his daughter is monstrous, but it’s the kind of monstrousness we can recognize: it’s a misanthropy that elegance and cultivation can disguise and that, we’re meant to understand, only his dead wife, a compelling offstage presence in the theatrical adaptation, was ever able to melt (or else it’s a point of view he developed in his grief over her loss). Castroverde is likable in act one but she needs more physical and vocal variety, and though she tries hard to make Claudine’s shifts work in the second half she fumbles them, and her performance flattens out. Short gives Henry a slight (and not unappealing) air of casual narcissism – he comports himself like a young man who’s used to be looked at – but he makes the character’s intentions transparent. He has one scene that’s the best part of the second act, though it’s an idea Stewart never builds on: we hear the phone messages he keeps trying to leave for Claudine after he’s abandoned her but then deletes. It feels like an impulse to humanize the character, to give him some heart (just as Masquerade does with Rob Lowe’s). I'm not sure how Stewart could have made good on that impulse, but the suggestion is more interesting than anything else she floats in the second half of Rich Girl.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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