I love the theater and in a recent visit to New York City I was able to see two plays, which are both very hot tickets right now. The Heiress starring the Oscar nominated actress Jessica Chastin (The Help) and the Steppenwolf Theater’s (from Chicago) revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz is based on the Henry James novella, Washington Square and was first performed on Broadway in 1947 and then was made into the film of the same name in 1949, directed by masterful William Wyler. The Heiress is one of my favorite plays.  It is fantastically structured, fast moving and satisfying and has a great part for an actress in Catherine Slope.  Olivia De Haviland won an Oscar for playing Catherine in the movie. 

 The play takes place in the mid-nineteenth century in New York City.  Catherine is a spinster who lives with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathaim), in a elegant townhouse on Washington Square. When a dapper charming, but impoverished young suitor (Morris Townsend played by Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens) shows a fervent and sudden interest in Catherine, her father becomes suspicious and draws some very difficult lines in the sand. Why would such a good looking young man who could have any woman want a plain Jane mouse like Catherine? Her father surmises it is for her money.


 Catherine Sloper is a the part of a lifetime for a woman, ranking right up there with Blanche DuBois and Lady Macbeth, as she has a great character arc and goes from a timid victimized wallflower to a cynical strong woman in charge. Much has been written about the miscasting of Jessica Chastin, who is clearly a beautiful young, strong woman who doesn’t appear meek at all.  With references to Catherine’s homeliness and charmless personality throughout the first part of the play, Chastin has a challenge playing down her striking looks and star charisma. Chastin is obviously a gifted actress and at first it appears she has a handle on the character who seems the polar opposite of her and the first half of the play has many scenes of tension.  However as the play progresses and Catherine goes from wimpy to empowered, Chastin is less effective.  This is of course ironic as it seems like it should be the opposite.

 However if this production of The Heiress doesn’t pack the emotional punch that the script does, it isn’t Chastin’s fault.  There is something missing from Moises Kaufman’s slick direction that manages to make several very good actors suffer from a lack of emotional resonance. All three lead roles are complex characters and not easy to pull off, but here these terrific actors are shy of maximizing their emotional potential.  Actually, Judith Ivey as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s hopelessly romantic high strung aunt, fares best of all, in what usually is a one dimensional role.

 There are good things about The Heiress, including the incredibly gorgeous set by Derek McLaine, and the smashing Lighting Design by David Lander.  Actually the play still works and this is a handsome production.  I perhaps would have liked it a lot of more if I hadn’t seen the sensational Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the same weekend.

 Steppenwolf’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf now playing at the Booth Theater in New York City is the greatest thing I have seen on stage in a long time.  Everything they are saying about it----is true.  Here is a theatrical experience that is transformative, illuminating, lacerating, riveting and impactful.

 It has been fifty years since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf appeared on Broadway and shook up the Great White way and catapulted American theater into post modernism.  The play has lost none of its power.  If anything its ideas on the disillusioned middle class and more specifically the ugliness of marriage are just as potent today.  Woolf is the most accessible of all of Albee’s plays; later works became more absurd.  It has plenty of conflict and fireworks and it is clearly rooted in a realistic setting and circumstances. But even if it is the most realistic of Albee’s plays, it isn’t without its mysteries and existential depth.  Booze, recriminations, infidelities, and regrets permeate the three hour night of fun and games and none of it is the slightest bit boring, mawkish or stilted. 

 Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for playing Martha in the film version (1966) of the play, and it clearly was her best performance.  Since then actresses have had to deal with being in her shadow and have found it difficult to etch out their own performance, however Amy Morton has broken the mould on the shrill fishwife that Taylor made so famous. Here is a remarkable performance.  Morton’s Martha isn’t a shrieking angry wife from hell, but instead is sad, disillusioned and vulnerable.  Yes she insults George and they fight vigorously, but she isn’t played as a villainess, nor does she seem like a shrew.

 George on the other hand doesn’t seem like a victim at all and with Tracy Letts in the role he commands the stage like a manipulative master of ceremonies. His George isn’t power hungry but a truth seeker.  He is a cornered dog that fights back, if he is going down, someone is going down with him. If his faults and failures are going to be bared raw, so is everyone else’s.  Yes he is morally corrupt, but so is everyone else around him.

 Carrie Coon plays Honey, they young wife who is in way over her head when she decides to come by for a late night drink.  She is the perfect combination of funny, peppy and pathetic.  Again, here is an actress that goes against the typical Honey interpretation, which tends to be mousy, maudlin and nervous. Madison Dirks completes the cast as the manly, supposedly incorruptible young professor who is the foil to George’s middle aged cynic.  Nick is the most ambiguous character in the play and Dirks plays him with the right amount of Mr. Do the Right Thing and sneaky snake, which lies underneath.

 Then of course you have Albee’s language, which is full of lyrical repetition and kinetic force. This production is fantastic and will make you understand the play in a whole new light.  Even if you don’t know the play, you will see some spectacular theater.