Written and Directed by Randy Sharp, adapted from the novel by Henry James
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 9.12.16
Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square
by David Kaufman on 3.12.23
(L-R) Britt Genelin and Jon McCormick in Washington Square. Photo by Pavel Antonov.
BOTTOM LINE: This new, pared-down adaptation of James's novel provides a pleasing diversion in under 90 minutes.
Henry James's novel was most famously adapted into the 1947 play The Heiress, which was then made into a movie (starring Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson), and has since been revived four times on Broadway, including a production in 1995 (with Cherry Jones), and most recently in 2012 (with Jessica Chastain). But rather than offering up yet another production of this stalwart play, Axis Theatre Company's artistic director Randy Sharp decided to write a new adaptation, one which hews closer to James's original novel.
Sharp pares the story down to just four characters. The "heiress" of the previous adaptation's title is Catherine Sloper (Britt Genelin), whose mother died giving birth to her. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (George Demas), resents her and wishes she had never been born, which unfortunately becomes Catherine’s own wish as well. “You’re as intelligent as a bundle of shawls,” he says, in his peculiar vernacular.
Yet nothing can dissuade Morris Townsend (Jon McCormick), who is hellbent on inheriting Catherine’s fortune. Fearful of becoming an old maid, Catherine is only too willing to accommodate Morris’s greed, despite her father’s forbiddance. In one of his numerous, revealing lines, Morris says “And I would be depriving one nothing...I mean I would deprive you of nothing.” As Morris commands and towers over Catherine, he is realized here by the persistently aggressive and insistent McCormick, who delivers a firmly solid performance.
Given her sharp, angular features, Dee Pelletier succeeds best as Catherine’s haughty, uppity, imperious, and at times insecure Aunt Penniman. On the other hand, there is Genelin's Catherine, a character who is referred to as "plain." While such homeliness might be accomplished in various ways (wigs, make-up, or an actor's change in physicality), this does not seem to have been a concern for director Sharp; casting the very pretty Genelin as Catherine creates somewhat of a disconnect.
With a tendency to speak too rapidly and garble his words, Demas’s vocal shrugs and motions are as grand as his physical gestures, drawing attention to themselves as much as Paul Carbonara’s music—awash with doleful and heartbreaking violins—does. Indeed, the score proves to be somewhat invasive and intrusive, and would be more appropriate for The Turn of the Screw, another Henry James tale.
The simple set design (no designer is credited, although Adam Couperthwaite and Jon McCormick are credited with “set construction”) features two identical, Victorian chairs—covered in a dark damask—in a dark and cavernous basement space. Supplementing this are any number of necessary props by Lynn Mancinelli, including wrap-around shawls, two needlepoint sheets or panes, and a snuff box. David Zeffren's lighting design is both dazzling and effective. Even more stunning are Karl Ruckdeschel’s period, museum-quality costumes, which alone prove enough to evoke mid-19th-century New York.
(Washington Square plays at Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, through April 1, 2003. The running time is 85 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8. General admission tickets are "Pay What You Choose" ($10, $20, and $30); Veterans and Active U.S. Service Members and their families are free. For tickets and more information, visit axiscompany.org or call 212-807-9300.)
Washington Square is written and directed by Randy Sharp, adapted from the novel by Henry James. Lighting Design by David Zeffren. Costume Design by Karl Ruckdeschel. Sound Design and Original Music by Paul Carbonara. Prop Design and Construction by Lynn Mancinelli. Production Stage Manager is Regina Betancourt. Assistant Director is Andrew Dawson. Assistant Stage Manager is Laurie Kilmartin. Assistant Lighting Designer is Amy Harper. Dramaturg is Marc Palmieri.
The cast is George Demas, Britt Genelin, Jon McCormick, and Dee Pelletier.