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NY Theater Reviews

Jessica Chastain and Judith Ivey/ Joan Marcus

DRAWING-ROOM FARCE

By SANDY MACDONALD

Henry James would be aghast at the damage done to his delicate family drama.

If you’ve ever experienced even a hint of a shy attack (these days the ailment is labeled “social anxiety”), you know the attendant agonies: excruciating self-consciousness, to start, perhaps accompanied by a malfunctioning tongue and sweaty palms.

Not included in the list of typical symptoms is a precipitous drop-off in IQ. That, however, is the principal impression conveyed by Jessica Chastain as the star powering a belabored revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 dramatization of Henry James’s 1880 novel "Washington Square." Her movie-star glamour semi-obscured by sallow makeup and a mousy wig (picture a mohair pincushion), Chastain gives us a Catherine Sloper who is not just “shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy,” as the master described his misfortunate heroinebut slow – uncomfortably, painfully slow. Slow to speak, slow to reason, slow to react. ... It's a "choice," in actor-speak, but an odd, untoward one. 

If Chastain did not deliver every line as if reading from a one-word-at-a-time cue card, the play’s running time – here nearly three hours – could be shaved by a third. Her body language is also off. At one point she galumphs up the staircase (effective formal set by Derek McLane) like a linebacker trudging to the showers. Twice, she executes a slow-mo curtsey so torturous as to suggest that Catherine might also suffer from a lack of gross-motor skills.

Under Moisés Kaufman’s ponderous direction, any bit that proves good for a laugh is presumed to warrant repeating. As Catherine’s silly, romantically inclined aunt (and complicit chaperone) Pittypat – sorry, Lavinia – Judith Ivey works a fat-tongued chortle as relentlessly as Lily Tomlin‘s chatty switchboard operator Ernestine.

Blame it on the Goetzes, perhaps, for transforming James’ tight little tragedy into a blowsy melodrama, complete with tit-for-tat denouement. Kaufman pushes the proceedings into the realm of drawing-room farce.

A handful of performers stick to the original script. David Strathairn keeps Dr. Sloper’s essential cruelty under wraps so shrewdly, its emergence comes as a shock. Dan Stevens (yes, the Downton Abbey heartthrob) maintains a nice ambiguity as Catherine’s questionable suitor. Is Morris Townsend a good sort or a bounder? In act two, Stevens lends the two-years-older, none the wiser ne'er-do-well – the Goetzes telescoped Morris’ exile to avert the depredations of middle age – a touching flop-sweat desperation.

The potential rapprochement of Catherine and her ambiguous beau ought to have us on the edge of our seats – a heart-rending cliffhanger to the very end. Instead, true to form, Chastain telegraphs Catherine’s intent so heavy-handedly that Morris would have to be as great a fool as she not to see his comeuppance coming.