The latest revival of the stage adaptation of Henry James’ novel WASHINGTON SQUARE titled THE HEIRESS closed on February 9, 2013 after a successful eighteen-week limited run of 117 performances that earned back its investment.  The story of a young woman who is filled with self-doubt due to the machinations of a parent is timeless, and it is now receiving a fresh infusion in the George St. Playhouse / Cleveland Playhouse co-production of Victoria Stewart’s RICH GIRL which is appearing at the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ through April 7.

Where noted physician, Dr. Sloper, belittles his daughter Catherine because she is alive and her “perfect” mother died at Catherine’s birth in the original, here money guru Eve Walker (Dee Hoty) controls and marginalizes her daughter Claudine (Crystal Finn) because she is the product of an unhappy marriage.  In both stories, the young women must find their strengths themselves.  However, where Catherine seems to be left in a world of darkens and solitude, there is hope for Claudine, especially for those of us who are incurable romantics and really need happy endings.

Eve is a popular financial speaker and author in the mode of Suze Ormon.  She was a waitress who married a young law student, put him through school, and was then left destitute by him while eight months pregnant with Claudine.  It’s no wonder then that her suggestions include ideas like, “Being in love means seeing a lawyer before you get married,” and “When a man and a woman truly love each other, they will sign a pre-nup.”  She now has a multi-million dollar philanthropic organization that focuses on educating children which she intends to leave to Claudine if Claudine can manage to prove her worth to her mother.

Also, as in the original, there is a speculative love interest.  Here, it is theatrical producer, director, designer, and actor Henry (Tony Roach).  Where the original Morris Townsend was overtly an opportunist looking to get Catherine’s money, Henry is written with such care that the question remains entirely open-ended.  Eve, however, believes that her money is all he is after since she cannot imagine why anyone would love or even want her clumsy, awkward, and backward daughter.  It is clear to see that Henry is, in many ways, similar to Morris, but Henry has an obvious conscience that Morris lacks.

One final character comes into play in this mix.  In the original, it’s Catherine’s widowed Aunt Lavinia who only sees a chance for Catherine to not be alone any longer.   RICH GIRL has the formidable talents of Liz Larsen as Maggie, Eve’s assistant and Claudine’s guardian angel.  Larsen adds a wonderfully sarcastic edge to the proceedings with hilarious readings of lines like “If you were only married, older, balding, and on the Internet, you’d be perfect for me” which Stewart has amply scattered throughout the script.  There is a pleasant balance here of comedy and pathos that is not evident in the original text, and the treatment is fresh and beautifully realized.

Does Henry really love Claudine and will they be together eventually?  It would be unfair of me to tell – besides, I know what I want to happen, and it may not have been Stewart’s intent.

Just about everything regarding this production is superb.  The unit set by Wilson Chin is attractive and serviceable.  When it comes down to people discussing minutiae such as to whether or not the sofa, coffee table, and bar set-up are right for the room (I do not think they are.) and finally deciding that Eve has money and possibly not taste, it’s a good sign that the set is stellar.  One or two costumes in the otherwise excellent design by Jennifer Caprio also missed the mark such as the ugly red “sweat pants” and strangely patterned top for Claudine in the last scene.  The lighting by Matthew Richards includes some absolutely stunning sunrises and sunsets, and Dave Bova deserves a special mention for the excellent wig designs for Claudine and Eve.

The ensemble on stage at George St. is extremely strong.  Hoty makes Eve both a detestable and empathetic character.  Where Dr. Sloper overtly loathes his daughter, Eve can’t help but see her as the product of her failure, and she does not like failure, but also as something she needs to protect and for which she must ensure a solid future.  She does care, but she is so emotionally damaged that she cannot fully show it.  Eve has decided that the only way she can survive is by being a harder person than everyone else.  It is to Hoty’s credit that one can still care about Eve even though she seems as though she is heading towards the isolation of Dickens’ Miss Haversham in her single-mindedness.  She believes she fully understands the world, and sums up Henry’s proposal of marriage to Claudine by reminding her that “I can turn on the T.V. every night of the week to watch someone eat bugs for the chance to win $25,000.  That’s the world we live in.” To liken a marriage to one’s daughter as being as questionable as eating “bugs” and other such stunts for money is reprehensible.

Finn’s Claudine is a charming study in self-doubt initially, but as she becomes more self aware and sure of herself, her spine and carriage change as well, and she blossoms before the audience.  Claudine could also be an unlikable character, but Finn imbues her with so many nuances and failings that one cannot help but care for her.  Even when she has made the transition to successful businesswoman, there is still some of the child-like Claudine present.

Maggie acts as the Greek chorus and fills in all of the necessary talking points; this is often a thankless job on stage.  Shakespeare often singled out one character like Benvolio in ROMEO AND JULIET who always got left behind to tell everyone what happened in case they were napping.  Do people generally remember Benvolio when they talk about the play?  No!  However, people will remember Liz Larsen who is immediately recognizable as the wisecracking “Eve Arden” friend who always seems to be on the fringes but is right in the middle of everything.  Here too is a character who is somewhat reprehensible.  She spies on Claudine for Eve, does thorough background checks on Henry, but is still immensely loveable.  Larsen also shows her impeccable timing delivering the often Simon-esque one-liners supplied to her by Stewart.

Roach has the toughest job of the evening since he works with a character who is purposefully enigmatic.  Whatever choices he has made for his character’s actions must pretty much remain transparent so that the audience keeps guessing throughout.  Roach is charming and energetic and, most of all, is believable.  Even if he is a heel, he is still a likable heel, but he might not be a heel at all.

When all is said and done, RICH GIRL is an excellent way to spend two hours in a theatre.  The well written characters are superbly acted in a visually pleasing production, and the adaptation is never forced and, for those who know the original material, more of a homage to the creations of James than a copy.  It is nice to see an intelligently adapted piece that actually extends the characters, adding depth and nuances that are true to the change in time periods.   Even if it does not make it to Broadway, this show is certain to be around in regional theatres for some time to come.

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