Evidently no one shared with playwright Victoria Stewart the maxim that if it ain't broke, you don't fix it. Thus we have Rich Girl, a contemporary riff on Henry James' 1880 novella Washington Square, which was first dramatized by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in the 1947 drama The Heiress. (The book has since been made into several films and an opera.) In her lighter-weight 2013 treatment, now in its area premiere at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Stewart cleaves close and cleverly to James' plot (until the last minute), but she refashions the Victorian tale of plain, simple Catherine Sloper, diminished by a brilliant but unemotional father, into a rom-com with Suze Orman as the villain.
The Orman figure, Eve, is a pulled-up-by-her-bootstraps financial guru spewing out books, spouting New Age-y monetary advice on CNBC, and claiming that every sacrifice and investment she has ever made has been for her daughter — though the hangdog latter is clearly a disappointment to her. Physically and socially awkward, Claudine is a lavender-haired, eccentrically dressed Bohemian who works for her mother's foundation for peanuts while living lavishly at home as Mom tries to toughen her up. When Henry, a prep-school acquaintance of Claudine's and the director of a struggling theater company, shows up to wangle a grant and is refused, he pursues the suddenly blossoming Claudine, perhaps for her sweetness, perhaps for her money. Of course, controlling and belittling Eve has no question what he's after.
It's an interesting notion to purge Washington Square of its patriarchal and Oedipal elements, not to mention its societal restrictions with regard to marriage. And goodness knows, now that they've been brought into the power circle, withholding moms are as likely to damage their daughters as withering dads. Moreover, Stewart rather succeeds at the rom-com, with Henry's tender, teasing pursuit of Claudine, whatever his motive, just what most of us would like to imagine for ourselves as we sigh into our popcorn. So the first half of Rich Girl is ingenious if superficial fun, especially as sparked at the Lyric by Celeste Oliva's energetic Maggie, Eve's personal assistant and Claudine's confidante, substituted here for the romantic, meddling aunt in Washington Square. Oliva's antic, Chardonnay-swilling Maggie manages to be both breathlessly competent and goofy at the same time. And unlike the other characters, she's often a little unexpected.
Unfortunately, things get more maudlin and clichéd after intermission — though the suggestion at the end that perhaps faked love is better than none provides food for thought as well as for post-performance discussion. The character of Eve, though buffed to a smug and brittle sheen by the creditable Amelia Broom, proves particularly problematic. Her televised financial talks play like a mix of self help and Zen koan (Orman should sue). And her behavior toward her daughter, whom she professes to love, isn't complicated, it's monstrous — right up to the moment when she tells Claudine her boyfriend can't possibly love her because there is simply nothing to love. By contrast, Sasha Castroverde pulls off a surprisingly successful metamorphosis from slumped and wincing klutz, fumbling and spilling all over her opening scene, to hardened, vengeful mini-mom. Moreover, she is costumed from the get-go by Mallory Frers in a bold mix of bright colors and patterns that illustrates Claudine was never without personality, whatever her mother may think. As Henry, Joe Short is calculatedly charming yet tender — a cad, perhaps, but one with both heart and a genuine passion for his art.
Courtney O'Connor helms the production, sharp even when the script goes flacid, on a set by Brynna Bloomfield that actually suggests a high-end, art-decorated Manhattan apartment instead of a cheap replica. But whereas I rather enjoyed the first half of Rich Girl, the whole thing left me hungry for a more substantive, not to mention poignant, helping of The Heiress.