Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rich performances lift the value of Rich Girl

Sasha Castroverde and Joe Short make love (or do they?) in Rich Girl.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

There's been a trend of late in playwrights (mostly female) "updating" classics by (mostly male) authors to reflect what we imagine are our new feminist norms. 

But most of these have been awkward misfires (Theresa Rebeck's flubbed stab at A Doll House is the avatar of the form) - which may raise doubts among the open-minded as to whether human nature has really changed all that much (or whether millennial modes are up to the job of portraying such shifts if they have indeed occurred).

I'm on the fence, however, about Rich Girl (now at the Lyric Stage), Victoria Stewart's gloss on the Henry James classic Washington Square - which Hollywood previously gave the women's-picture treatment in 1949, with William Wyler's melodramatic The Heiress (see YouTube below). Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance as the film's unlovely and unloved heroine, Catherine Sloper (even though the idea that Olivia de Havilland could be either unlovely or unloved was pretty laughable); the rest of the dream cast included Montgomery Clift as the handsome cad who's after her fortune, and Sir Ralph Richardson as the heartless father determined to teach her a hard lesson in love.  And intriguingly, the score was by Aaron Copland, of all people (although he refused an Oscar on the grounds that Hollywood had tampered with his work). Like I said, pure class all the way, and the picture, though slightly stiff, is still a good way to while away a rainy afternoon.

The finale of The Heiress.

Wyler also gave James a swift kick in the climax by concocting a conclusion (see above) in which Catherine vengefully turns the tables on her scheming swain. This sequence is probably what people remember best from the movie, so it's no surprise playwright Stewart has tried to hang onto it in Rich Girl - while at the same time attempting to replace Wyler's high melodrama with something like a hip comic mood.

But it's that knowing tone that gets the playwright into trouble. Whatever its flaws, the James original is unafraid to call a spade a spade; Catherine's suitor is definitely shifty, and her father is an unreconstructed villain, who's all but openly hostile to his daughter (as her beloved mother died in childbirth). And by the time he's through with her, Catherine's own emotional potential is as stunted as his own; so Washington Square isn't so much a potboiler as a mordant meditation on the inability to love.

But in Stewart's update, the villain's gender has been switched - it's the mother of Catherine (here "Claudine") who has made the family fortune, as a Suze-Orman-like money guru stalking the studios of PBS. Rather obviously, therefore, Mom can't have died in childbirth; instead, in this version she was herself abandoned while pregnant  - a very different pretext for the ensuing plot, as suddenly protection becomes the excuse for her daughter's punishment.

Now this is an intriguing twist on James - but in the end, it too must lead much the same place: the re-infliction of abandonment on an innocent child by a wounded parent. But Stewart can't quite bring herself to analyze Mom as mercilessly as James anatomized Dad; she tiptoes up to her feminine battlements, but just barely peeks over. Indeed, she riddles "Eve" (really?  Eve?) with so many lacunae that the role becomes almost a puzzle; the revelatory showdowns that would make the character click never quite materialize, and she becomes a cipher but not a sphinx.

Stewart fills the resulting gap in her story with a lot of witty comment on capitalism that likewise never quite coalesces into a theme. Eve, for example, babbles on - with unintentional irony - about the supposed equivalence of money and self-worth; meanwhile Stewart undercuts the caddishness of James' grasping seducer by making him the director of a struggling theatre company (ha!) who needs Claudine's fortune to patch a hole in his budget. (And who could be against funding a non-profit with Suze Orman's ill-gotten gains?) Stewart is equally soft on Claudine herself; James nearly satirizes his heroine in places, but Claudine hangs onto her weary humanity despite everything - which allows the playwright to dangle before us the hope that in her new incarnation, she may dodge her predecessors' lonely fate.

The talented cast of Rich Girl on Brynna Bloomfield's elegant set. Photo: Mark S. Howard

I can't argue all these smart twists and turns aren't fun; but in the end they only amount to a side show next to the central conflict between Claudine and her mother. Still, as side shows go, this one's diverting, thanks to a capable cast and witty direction by Courtney O'Connor. The standout performance comes from the magnetic Celeste Oliva, who throws herself with infectious abandon into the role of the executive assistant who tries to steer Claudine toward love (or at least its facsimile). But honestly, I thought Sasha Castroverde's Claudine - here rocking a purple wig - was just as appealing. Castroverde has risen through the ranks at the Lyric, and she's a wonderfully droll comedienne; as a result, both Claudine's awkwardness and poignant self-awareness are always in clear focus. I was also impressed by newcomer Joe Short in the role of her seducer; Short is a handsome lug, but perhaps doesn't have quite the soap-opera steaminess the part could use. But he's a quick study and a versatile talent - and so a welcome addition to the Lyric stable. Alas, the similarly talented Amelia Broome does stumble slightly as Eve, but honestly, I almost felt she was hamstrung by Stewart's writing (or the gaps therein).

As for the playwright herself - well, Rich Girl may not be quite solvent dramatically, but somehow I left it convinced that Stewart has talent. She certainly has the wit to write a great comedy of manners - but does she have the guts? It's a question that looms in my mind about many of the new plays I've seen by female playwrights. Why is there never any blood on the floor? Why have women seemingly abandoned Caryl Churchill's scalpel? Where's the female Mamet, or Pinter - or even Stoppard, much less James? Did Arthur Miller back away from the battle between Biff and Willy Loman?  I don't think so. These men wrote villains - or at least antiheroes. They didn't retreat from conflict by claiming that everyone has a valid perspective, and so why can't we all just get along? That attitude makes for peace on the college campus, yes I know. But it doesn't make for great drama.

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