[Note: Return engagement of production that ran from October 5 – 29, 2022]
From the moment it begins, Randy Sharp’s new adaptation of Washington Square based on the novella by Henry James grabs hold of you by the throat and never lets up. Reduced to a story with only four characters, Sharp’s direction of her actors is as intense as her text. Why do we need a new adaptation when the previous one named The Heiress has been extremely successful, you ask? The Sharp adaptation is much closer to the James novella and uses the original ending while the Ruth and Augustus Goetz version adds its own theatrical variations. It also turns the story into a character study rather than an elegant drawing room drama, restoring it to its most basic dynamic.
Dr. Sloper (George Demas), a successful society doctor in Old New York, has been disappointed that his only child Catherine has turned out plain and dull at age 20 while her mother who died in childbirth was beautiful and brilliant. However, he has avoided showing his disappointment to Catherine (Britt Genelin) while she was growing up. For most of that time his widowed sister, the romantic Mrs. Penniman, has been Catherine’s only companion, living with them in the house on Washington Square. This is the back story to the play and the novel.
Though an heiress who will eventually inherit a fortune, Catherine has grown up naïve, innocent – and socially backward. Attending her first adult affair, the engagement of her cousin Marian to Arnold Townsend at the home of her Aunt Almond, she meets the penniless, idle and charming adonis, Morris Townsend, a distant cousin to Arnold. He is immediately smitten with Catherine and makes a play for her. Having never been wooed before particularly by someone so devastatingly handsome, Catherine falls for him right away. Unfortunately, her father is less impressed and after Morris is invited for dinner, Dr. Sloper declares that he is not a gentleman. What he suspects is that the young man who has no employment is after Catherine’s fortune as he cannot believe that his plain and dull daughter would interest the well-traveled and sophisticated Morris.
When Catherine and Morris become engaged, her father informs her that he will disinherit her if she goes through with the marriage. With Mrs. Penniman instigating for their quick elopement, the situation becomes heated at the Slope residence and leads to various developments including the doctor taking his daughter to Europe for six months. While in the novel, Morris protests he is not interested in her money (although Catherine herself has inherited $10,000 a year from her late mother), here he cleverly slips several times as to his interest in the $30,000 inheritance to come. While the novel continues another twenty years into the future, the play telescopes the action but remains faithful to James’ conclusion. One small mistake is that Catherine and Morris’ sudden separation has no transition and it is left to the viewer to fill in the unexplained gap. It is as though a short scene has been unaccountably excised.
While one would not have expected the minimalist setting with only two grey armchairs and black walls to work for this period story written in 1880 and set in an elegant Washington Square mansion, the lack of scenery only adds to the play’s intensity just as the dark corners of the set in David Zeffren’s lighting design help to concentrate the action on the quartet of performers. Although the actors have only one set of costumes in Karl Ruckdeschel’s design, they are so well chosen that they serve for the entire story. The somber original music by Paul Carbonara featuring Samuel Quiggins’ cello solo is both poignant and appropriate to Dr. Sloper’s dark and cold house.
While they are all excellent in their roles, the off-beat casting is rather disconcerting. Britt Genelin’s Catherine Slope, the naïve heiress, is much too beautiful to be referred to as plain. On the other hand, Jon McCormick is not unattractive as the extraordinarily handsome Morris Townsend whose only assets are his charm and his good looks but a cover boy he is not. (How many Robert Taylors and Tyrone Powers are there, after all?)
The acting is of outstanding quality and remains on a high pitch throughout. Genelin’s Catherine is consistently innocent, ordinary and naïve even when she finally stands up to her father. As Morris Townsend, Jon McCormick is glib and suave at all times while his veneer begins to break more than halfway through the play. As Mrs. Penniman, Dee Pelletier is amusingly romantic, passionate and impractical, although in this version of the story she is extremely forceful and energetic, never retiring in her battle with her brother. George Demas’ Dr. Sloper is distinguished, single-minded, distant and commanding. His demeanor reveals much more than he actually says. Not only are they all convincing, they make the play riveting theater and the tension continues to rise throughout with the unmovable father opposed to the marriage even though his daughter and sister are all for it.
On what is either a shoestring budget or a conscious effort to strip Henry James’ novel down to its essentials, Randy Sharp’s new adaptation of Washington Square is both exciting theater and entirely true to its source material. The quartet of fine actors make this story of 1840’s New York entirely credible and engrossing at all times. While it avoids the beautiful trappings usually associated with the period, it is so gripping that they are not missed for a moment.
Washington Square (Return engagement: March 1 – April 1, 2023)
Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, West Village, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-807-9300 or visit http://www.axiscompany.org
Running time: one hour and 25 minutes without an intermission