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Smart Play, And Disturbing, Too

It’s a smart, tidy play, “The Heiress,” and, even with no surprises, riveting. No surprises because we know Catherine Sloper (Jill Wanderman), a plain and graceless woman, is being wooed for her fortune (back in the 19th century when $30,000 a year was real money in New York). No doubt about it. Penniless Morris Townsend (Jonathan Slocum) may be courting the doctor’s daughter, but he makes clear in a moment alone in the Washington Square drawing room, sweeping his arm along the fireplace mantel, that what he wants is to live as rich people do. Dr. Austin Sloper (handsomely played by Tracy Trimm) objects. Morris, he claims, though charming and intelligent, is most certainly an opportunist marrying his daughter for her money. Which is curious because lots of happy marriages were (and still are) based on a woman’s fortune. (Remember the impecunious British aristocrats seeking wealthy American wives to keep their castles afloat?) We wonder about the doctor’s opposition. And we wonder, too, because he disdains his daughter so. “Help her to be clever,” he asks his sister, Lavinia. “You are good for nothing unless you are clever.” “I’ll never understand it,” he adds. “Her mother was so graceful.” But her mother died in childbirth, leaving Austin alone with a busy and sometimes charitable practice and a child he sears with insult at every opportunity. Still, he aims to keep his daughter, gauche and dim as she may be, with him. Forever. And though the play does not quite address this dark and uneasy notion, it won’t go away. The doctor needs Catherine. He will not let her go to another man. The script, based on the Henry James novel “Washington Square,” and written for the stage by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, is a marvel of clarity, even beauty at times. But the production is weakened by the heiress’s deer-in-the-headlights style of acting. And when she comes into her own, as we knew she would, we get too much hauteur and not enough chilling resolve. Still, this is a gem of a play. Forget the terrible wigs and awful costumes and enjoy the dandy script.

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