Rich Girl Veers From Light Comedy into
Updating The Heiress to the present with smart writing and clever detail, Stewart closely hews to the plot structure of her source. Claudine is an unattractive, painfully shy woman who is dominated and emotionally abused by Eve, her bitter, rich, divorced mother who is a television financial wizard a la Suze Orman (In case you've forgotten, in 1880, James' unattractive, painfully shy Catherine was dominated and abused by her physician father, who is rich and widowed, and emotionally abusive to her).
The naïve Claudine falls head over heels in love with Henry, a penniless, deeply in debt, avant-garde theatre director, who showers her with warmth and affection while staunchly maintaining that her mother's money is of no interest whatsoever to him. Still, Eve is unswervingly certain that the charming, seemingly ingenuous Henry is only interested in her clumsy, unattractive daughter because of their money.
Henry proposes marriage and Claudine happily accepts. However, Eve offers to first take Claudine on a trip with her to Africa. With Henry's encouragement, Claudine decides to go, postponing their wedding until her return. As the first act curtain falls, Eve and Claudine are off to Africa.
Despite its obvious and manifold parallels to The Heiress and the James novel, I was dumbfounded by the enormous gulf between those works and Rich Girl. For, at present, the first act of Rich Girl is lightweight, rather typical romantic comedy about a mother-dominated, mousey, poor little rich girl who would break her chains and find happiness with a poor, dedicated young artist that strains for laughs at the expense of verisimilitude.
Little was I prepared for the scathing, pulse quickening melodrama that awaited me after intermission. After returning from Africa, Lee turns on Claudine in a painfully vicious and destructive manner. Lee then tells Claudine that if she marries Henry, she will have to give up of all her assets ("correction, my assets"), and move out of their apartment. Claudine readily agrees to sign a contract to this effect which Lee had drawn up.
Relative to the first act, Lee's dastardly behavior was over the top for both play and character. However, it quickly became obvious that Rich Girl had entered into the powerfully emotional realm of James and the Goetzes and that viewers were being hurdled headlong into a heart quickening, emotionally involving modern transposition of their earlier work. If Stewart adds ballast to her first act, recalibrating it to lay the groundwork for her strong second act, Rich Girl will be a candidate for widespread success.
Crystal Finn is a revelation in the difficult role of Claudine. Finn limns her continuing evolution of Claudine with amazing precision and clarity. Finn never takes a false step nor loses our sympathy and involvement. Dee Hoty adroitly navigates the role of the less fastidiously drawn Eve with wit and power. Hoty is on target both with the acerbic Eve Arden style Lee of act one, and the Joan Crawford harridan Eve of act two. However, the gap between the two faces of Eve is inherent in the script and must first be resolved there.
Liz Larsen is funny and appealing as the unlucky in love Maggie, Eve's confidant and amanuensis. Tony Roach is boyishly charming as Henry, subtlety revealing his hidden facets.
Rich Girl is a co-production with Cleveland Play House where it will be performed from April 19 - May 12. It is directed by CPH artistic director Michael Bloom. Bloom has assembled a stellar cast from which he has obtained intelligent, lively performances. However, as director of this world premiere production, it now falls to him (along with author Stewart) to reconcile the disparate styles of act one and act two.
Much of the play is set in the sitting room of Lee's luxurious Manhattan apartment, which is adequately rendered by Wilson Chin. The electronic projection of Lee's television appearances is impressive. The evocative costume design is by Jennifer Caprio. There is some excellent hair/wig design by Dave Bova. However, the initial hair design for Claudine, a reflection of her disordered state, is overly comedic. It becomes a further distraction when the dialogue indicates that Claudine would have changed her hairstyle after act one, scene three, but she does not do so until after act one.
Playwright Victoria Stewart has provided a sharply modernized New York state of mind for her play by peppering it with a number of witty references to the current theatre scene along with additional 21st century economic, social and political references. Her updated characters, their world and their values increase their relevance to contemporary audiences. As Henry James provided a back story to explain Catherine's physician father's attitude toward her, Stewart has provided Lee with one that explains her hard heartedness toward her daughter.
Rich Girl continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm (except. 4/7) / Matinees.: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm through April 7, 2013 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.
Rich Girl by Victoria Stewart; directed by Michael Bloom