NEW YORK - One of the interesting facts about our neck of the woods - to me, anyway - is the way the Christmas season tends to begin well before Thanksgiving, then slams to a halt around 10 days before the holiday itself.
After weeks of needing to split columns in order to cover all the holiday-related events, this afternoon's performance of "Nutcracker" is the final event until the Chautauqua Chamber Singers' traditional Twelfth Night concert.
Fortunately, as I told you in last week's column, I was in New York City recently. Not only did I get to watch part of George Balanchine's "Nutcracker" from the wings, I got to attend a matinee performance of "The Heiress," featuring two actors with ties to our area. In two of the leading roles were Jessica Chastain, who was a participant in the class of 2001 at the Chautauqua Conservatory Theater Company, and Judith Ivey, who is the sister of SUNY Fredonia professor of theatre and dance, James Ivey.
Jessica Chastain plays a young woman who is torn between her stern father and her frivolous suitor. Actors are David Strathairn, Ms. Chastain and Dan Stevens.
I tried to arrange to talk with either of these lovely ladies while I was there, but I was only in town for a short while, and I had the New York City Ballet interview to complete in order to write last week's column, so it wasn't possible to intersect with their schedules.
Still, I got to see the performance, and this week, I'd like to share my observations with you.
The production is one of the exceptions which proves the rule when you come to the production of plays on Broadway. It is generally accepted, and I've stated my belief among the others, that the outrageously high cost of real estate in New York City and the high taxes and ridiculous labor costs and materials costs have created theater ticket prices which have driven theater lovers away from the Broadway theaters and forced them to find the artform they love in small, dark side streets and in suburban locations.
Meanwhile, the big Broadway theaters run entertaining but intellectually empty extravaganzas for which tourists prepared to blow their savings on a visit to the city are willing to fork over well more than $100 per seat. The going rate for musical shows is more than twice that, and many theaters have a V.I.P section with ticket prices of $400 and more.
We live in a country where people alternate between bemoaning the state of our education establishment, and ridiculing and deriding anyone who even expresses an interest in developing his mind, or being challenged, intellectually. And it isn't even that people aren't interested in intellectual material, the problem is that they are proud of the fact that they aren't interested, and feel fully entitled to ridicule anyone who is. Most people don't even recognize that as the glaring contradiction that it is.
As it happens, at this moment there are an astonishing number of genuine theater pieces being produced in New York, and "The Heiress" is one of the best. Some of the others would include these: "The Anarchist" stars Debra Winger and Patti LuPone, one of the great stars of contemporary theater, who once lived in our area and who still has relatives in Jamestown and Dunkirk. "Glengarry Glen Ross" by David Mamet is a bare-knuckle savaging of the cruelty and immature bullying which take place among highly paid, grown men in business.
"Golden Boy" is an exploration of a brilliant young violinist who is torn between his love for his art and his ability to earn far more as a professional boxer. That one stars Seth Numrich, another alumnus of Chautauqua Theater, by the way. And finally, the first class revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," by Edward Albee, which explores a middle-aged, married couple whose marriage has decayed into a rivalry and a mutual loathing. There are a number of fine offerings off-Broadway, as well, although that is not so surprising.
I can't resist including that at the Public Theater there is a musical adaptation of Edna Ferber's classic novel "Giant," with music composed by Westfield native Michael John LaChiusa.
I suppose I'd better stop writing about the subject, before someone in authority finds out that they're producing the good stuff and kicks the machine, producing yet another version of "Frosty the Snowman: the Musical."
"The Heiress" was written by a husband and wife: Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Most sources I investigated say they wrote it in 1947, although one source gave the date as 1949.
It is an adaptation for the stage of a 19th century novel by American author Henry James, which bore the title "Washington Square." The book was written in 1880, and originally appeared, a few chapters at a time, in popular magazines of the era.
James was a prolific author, among whose many popular novels and novellas are "The Turn of the Screw," "The Wings of the Dove," "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Bostonians."
The play is a very good condensation of the novel, sacrificing a good deal of excellent, sharp-eyed detail in order to put across the principal actions of the plot.
The heiress of the title is a wealthy young woman named Catherine Sloper. She lives with her widowed father in New York City's Washington Square, a fashionable address now, as well as in 1880. Father Austin Sloper is a brilliant and much-respected medical doctor.
Catherine's mother was a beautiful woman with a reputation as a wit and a charmer. Sadly she died, giving birth to Catherine after her only other child died at the age of 3. The young woman has no female adult to teach her how to dress fashionably and how to conduct herself in society, so she has grown up as a shy, rather lifeless spinster.
Her father truly loves his daughter, but he blames the woman for her mother's death, and he goes about his life assuming that she will do things incorrectly, and that she is utterly without talent or charm.
One day, Catherine's more successful cousin, Marian, brings her new husband to visit the Sloper household. The young couple brings along a friend of the husband's, named Morris Townsend. He is a very handsome, well-dressed and mannered man, and Catherine's immediate impulse is to hide from him, but he makes the effort to bring her out and make her feel that she appeals to him and has something to add to the conversation.
Perhaps the weakest moment in the play is how quickly Catherine becomes completely smitten by his charm, but there just isn't time to go through weeks of visits and strolls in the garden. Dr. Sloper immediately assumes that a young man of Townsend's abilities could be interested in Catherine for no other reason than the fact that she is heir to his own considerable fortune.
Her father orders her not to continue her relationship with her suitor. He threatens to disinherit her, if she persists. The central conflicts of the play are whether she should pursue marriage with the young man, whether or not the father will stand by his threat, or whether he will surrender to his daughter's will, and whether the young man is sincere in his protestations, or whether he is the cold-blooded fortune hunter which her father suspects.
The audience member has to understand the doctor's emotional starvation of his daughter, while suspecting that his doubts about the handsome suitor may be genuine. We have to admire the talents of the young man, and understand what an alternative he offers Catherine to her stilted existence. There have to be enough believable details about all the characters to keep us guessing until everything is finally revealed.
Tossed into the conflict is Dr. Sloper's long-widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman. The aunt is a hopeless romantic who is completely charmed by the young suitor and who sees herself as the fairy godmother who will bring about a romantic, happy ending for her dowdy niece.
Aunt Lavinia is constantly plotting to bring the young couple together, arranging to smuggle the suitor into the house through back doors and the like. Unless you are familiar with the novel or the play, the ending is likely to feel rewarding, if surprising.
Such a forthright examination of a woman's role in society and a questioning of whether the purchasing of a relationship is as unreasonable and unthinkable as it sounds, at first examination, was rare in 1880, and is rather rare today.
Just in passing, one of the sources I studied has made the conversion of Catherine's fortune into 2012 dollars. According to the source, she has already inherited an income worth $600,000 per year from her mother, and if her father doesn't keep his vow to disinherit her, she stands to acquire five times that much annual income from him.
JESSICA AND JUDITH, ETC.
Jessica Chastain is a lovely young woman. To turn her into her dowdy character, the costumers have dressed her in expensive-looking but colorless dresses. Her hairstyle is very plain, and her eyebrows have been all but whited-out by make up. Her facial planes have been de-emphasized in a reverse of the standard make-up technique, and I believe she wears a false nose, although I'm basing that opinion on a comparison of actually seeing her face in the performance, with photos which are available online.
Her most recent performance at Chautauqua, if I remember correctly, was playing a number of characters in the company's production of Moises Kaufman's play "The Laramie Project." She has performed exclusively in films for the past several years, since her appearance on the New York stage as Desdemona in a critically derided production of Shakespeare's "Othello" a number of years back.
There is an interview with her in the Playbill, which serves as a program at the performance. In it, she says she had determined that she would never return to the stage following that embarrassment until approached by Kaufman, who penned the play in which she appeared at Chautauqua. Kaufman is the director of the current production.
The highlight of her film career, thus far, is the film "The Help," about the relationship between African-American servants in white-only households in the mid-20th century in America. For that performance, she won an Oscar nomination, as well as nominations for the Golden Globe, Critic's Choice, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards. She has appeared in a long list of other films, including three which will be released this month or next. These are "Zero Dark Thirty," "Mama" and "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."
Judith Ivey portrays the dotty but good-intentioned Aunt Lavinia. I've read several critical reviews of the production which say she steals the show, and while I think that is an over-statement, there is an element of truth there.
Ms. Ivey has been a professional actor for 39 years and has won two Tony awards for her performances. She may be best known by the general public for one year as a main character in the television series "Designing Women," or as the mother of Dr. Leo Markus, the character played by Harry Connick Jr., Grace's husband, in the series "Will and Grace."
She was reviewed in these pages a few years back, when she performed a one-woman play at the Public Theatre, dealing with the life of a famous Watergate public character Martha Mitchell. Her list of roles and performances is vast - too vast to recreate here.
The production is a feast of well-known names. Also in the cast are frequent stage and screen star David Strathairn as Dr. Sloper and Dan Stevens as the charming Mr. Townsend. Stevens is a British actor who has become well known in the States because of his continuing role as the young heir to the central family in the PBS television series "Downton Abbey."
I've already mentioned the director, Moises Kaufman, as the playwright behind "The Laramie Project." He also wrote the plays "I Am My Own Wife," "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" and "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde."
One of the few weaknesses of this production of "The Heiress" was the audience's insistence upon giving a welcoming ovation at the first appearance of each of the four actors whose names are highlighted above. It slowed the beginning of the play and broke the focus, time after time.