Michael Balsley and Kelly Ann Moorein The Heiress
Michael Balsley and Kelly Ann Moore
in The Heiress
Although some people say you can't kill a good play, that's not really true. But it is true that, if an excellent script is generally well acted and directed, it will play like gangbusters even if the production has significant flaws. A perfect example of this is the current Roundtable Ensemble revival of Ruth & Augustus Goetz's The Heiress.

The play is loosely based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. It's safe to say that most people today know the Goetz adaptation through the 1949 film version that stars Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson under the direction of William Wyler. (The one-sentence IMDb description of the film sums up the plot of the stage play and the movie quite succinctly: "A young, naive woman falls for a handsome young man who her emotionally abusive father suspects is a fortune hunter.") There was an exemplary Broadway revival of the play in 1995 with a cast led by Cherry Jones, Philip Bosco, and Jon Tenney, directed by the recently deceased Gerald Gutierrez. Washington Square was published in 1880 and the original Broadway production of The Heiress opened at the Biltmore Theatre in 1947; but human nature hasn't changed in the intervening decades and, therefore, this wonderfully well written play is timeless.

Since the flaws of the Roundtable production matter so little in the long run, let's get them out of the way right off the bat. James Jacobson seems to have it in him to give a fine portrayal of the rigid Dr. Austin Sloper but his lack of concentration and his tendency to stumble over lines combine to make the performance barely acceptable -- a pity, because it's such a great role. While Jo Winiarski's scenic design, Oana-Botez-Ban's costume design, and Joel R. Wilhelmi's sound design for this show at The Mint Space on West 43rd Street are of an extremely high level for an Equity showcase production, David Dunford's lighting design isn't very good -- even if one makes allowances for what Dunford had (or didn't have) to work with. Finally, though the business of having the cast draw thick drapes back and forth across the front of the playing area may sound interesting on paper and is dramatically effective at times, it has such an adverse affect on the sightlines that it must finally be considered a mistake.

Now for the good news. In the central role of Catherine Sloper, Kelly Ann Moore is superb. I'm not sure why this actress is not better known but I can only hope that she will gain close attention and high praise for her rich, detailed, extraordinarily sensitive performance here. Moore strikes not a single false note in her portrayal of Catherine, a sweet, shy, mid-19th century miss who is treated cruelly once too often. The character's two-act transition from emotional doormat to ice princess is a difficult one that can trip up lesser actresses -- but not an Olivia De Havilland, a Cherry Jones, or a Kelly Ann Moore. (Note: Moore's program bio informs us that she's the founder and artistic director of the Roundtable Ensemble, and one can only assume that The Heiress was intentionally staged as a vehicle for her. This sort of thing usually screams "vanity production" and should be discouraged -- but when the results are so impressive, it would be foolish to complain.)

If the actor playing opposite Moore as Catherine's father leaves something to be desired, as noted above, the same can't be said for the actor cast as Catherine's suitor, Morris Townsend. Michael Balsley is spectacularly good in the part, perfect in looks and demeanor in addition to being an abundantly talented actor. It's important that Morris not be too obviously venal, lest the play degenerate into melodrama; Balsley effortlessly walks the line between polite young man and mercenary schemer, keeping the audience guessing until well into the second act.

These two performances, skillfully directed by Mahayana Landowne, would be more than enough in themselves to make this production worth seeing. But wait; there's more! The supporting cast is uniformly better than anyone could reasonably hope for, right down to Jean Morgan as the maid and David Gochfeld in the small, thankless role of Arthur Townsend. Michele Tauber plays Catherine's aunt Lavinia Penniman as a roly-poly little woman with a nervous giggle; the characterization is like nothing I've ever seen before and yet is so valid that, while watching it, I couldn't imagine the part being done any other way. In her few brief appearances as Elizabeth Almond, Rebecca Hoodwin is so focused and so much "in the moment" that you'll find yourself wishing she had more stage time. Finally, as Mrs. Montgomery (Morris's sister), Dee Pelletier gives a performance of amazing depth and sincerity; Mrs. M. has only one scene but Pelletier limns her as completely as if she were the fulcrum of the drama.

This production continues through January 31. Though it's less than Broadway-quality in several respects, it's so brilliantly well acted that the $15 ticket price seems laughably low. If you've never seen The Heiress, you owe it to yourself to take the opportunity to do so now; and if you're familiar with the play, you should go to marvel at how satisfyingly it has been staged on a shoestring budget.