Dan Stevens, famously of Downton Abbey, swaps one period drama for another as he makes his Broadway debut in this superb revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s bleakly brilliant play – based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square – about the damage wrought by living without love.
The year is 1850. Stevens is Morris Townsend, a charmer who lets money slip through his fingers like water. He brings chaos to the ordered world of New York City widower Dr Austin Sloper (David Strathairn) when he seduces the doctor’s daughter, Catherine (Jessica Chastain) – a painfully shy, socially awkward but wealthy heiress.
The show has you in the palm of its hand with the sharp observational comedy of its opening scenes and Judith Ivey’s hilarious turn as merry aunt Lavinia. And then it clenches its fist. Bone-dry one-liners calcify into a chilling portrait of parental expectations devoid of human warmth in a society where affection is inseparable from fortune.
Moisés Kaufman’s beautifully judged production swells with pauses and moments of deliberation, as characters pick their way through the web of social etiquette that binds them to each other. The drawing-room set, with its high ceiling, heavy drapes and thick beams, bears down oppressively.
Stevens impresses as a credibly likeable Townsend, all floppy hair and smiles when he bounds into the lives of the Slopers. And even when his motives become clearer, he’s never a straightforward gold-digger, but a self-deluding, ultimately pitiful man who believes the lines he spins.
But while Stevens doesn’t disappoint (and neither does his American accent), it is Strathairn and Chastain who dominate the stage. The disintegration of their characters’ dysfunctional relationship is gripping: at times heart-rending but never histrionic.
With subtlety and restraint, Strathairn unearths the deeply buried grief that drives Austin to distrust Townsend’s professed love for his daughter. He sees her only as a flawed image of his dead wife, lacking any value besides money to attract a husband.
Meanwhile, Chastain’s Catherine is a girl incomplete, robbed by her father of an identity of her own and hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with Townsend’s flattery. Everything from her flat, stilted manner of speech to the stiffness of her curtsies radiates awkwardness. It’s an excruciatingly effective performance.
And by the end, we understand with awful clarity that money is not the most significant legacy left to Catherine. As a spot-lit Chastain climbs the stairs alone, looking like a young Miss Havisham, we see that the bitterness of a broken heart is her character’s lasting inheritance.
First published by The Telegraph