As a plain Jane whose inheritance makes her catnip to a handsome fortune hunter, Jessica Chastain is close to perfect in her Broadway debut.
This classically trained actress, an Oscar nominee for “The Help” and ubiquitous onscreen this past year, brings a trembling, quiet delicacy to Catherine Sloper, the title role in Moises Kaufman’s revival of “The Heiress.”
Chastain may not be quite so good at suppressing an innate loveliness radiating through wig and makeup, but that only adds to the sense of shifting tectonic plates that build to Catherine’s coming out as a full-fledged inductee into the chilly, joyless family that spawned her.
Based on the Henry James novel “Washington Square” (and set in 1850, when Greenwich Village was a wealthy enclave), “The Heiress” is an old-fashioned show by the husband-and-wife team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz that provided choice roles for Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift in the 1949 film adaptation.
A mostly inspired cast and design team have been assembled for a melodrama that doesn’t fall completely within the comfort zone of this adventurous director (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” “I Am My Own Wife”).
Catherine has grown up motherless in Derek McLane’s gorgeous townhouse, seemingly gas-lit by David Lander, with its flocked wallpaper, mahogany appointments and silk-draped floor-to-ceiling windows. Her father, Austin (David Strathairn), is a society doctor who dotes on Catherine despite a simmering resentment that his revered wife died giving birth to her.
Also in attendance is her spinster Aunt Lavinia (Judith Ivey), whose flightiness hides less obvious steel.
Lonely, shy and painfully awkward, Catherine is ripe for the picking. When feckless Morris Townshend (“Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens) arrives on the scene, she’s a goner despite daddy’s cruel warning that she has nothing to offer such a man but her money.
Catherine’s transformation from prey to predator (“I have been taught by masters,” she famously spits near the play’s end) shocks and satisfies, which is all you can ask of a matinee play. That plus scrumptious costumes (Albert Wolsky), and fully committed performances.
Stevens is unctuous enough and shows a fine mid-Atlantic American accent and Ivey delights as a flibbertigibbet straight out of “The Pickwick Papers.” Strathairn, gruff and somewhat disheveled looking, struck me as slightly ill-directed.
While the other cast members neutralize a too-heavy directorial hand, this fine actor seems earthbound because of it. It’s small detriment to an otherwise engaging evening.
Through Feb. 10, 2013 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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