'The Heiress' review: Jessica Chastain isn't pretty

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Jessica Chastain, left, and Judith Ivey in

Jessica Chastain, left, and Judith Ivey in "The Heiress." Photo Credit: AP

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Maybe, if someone never saw the revelatory Cherry Jones in the 1995 revival of "The Heiress," well, maybe the one now starring Jessica Chastain would make the 1947 drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz feel like a genuine demi-classic discovery.

Perhaps, had we not lost ourselves 17 years ago in Gerald Gutierrez's rapturously unsentimental staging of the play inspired by Henry James' late-19th century "Washington Square" (and made into William Wyler's Oscar vehicle for Olivia de Havilland in 1949), well, perhaps we wouldn't be so let down by the phony theatricality and comic mugging in director Mois├ęs Kaufman's gorgeously decorated, emotionally simplistic production.

It is possible that I'm being too hard on this much-anticipated, lavishly creaky revival, which also stars the dashing Dan Stevens ("Downton Abbey") as the dashing fellow who comes to court Catherine Sloper (Chastain), the painfully shy only child of the domineering wealthy doctor (the splendidly straightforward David Strathairn).

But Chastain, the fine movie actress in her Broadway debut, only comes to life in the second half, after the handsome but penniless gentleman caller claims to want to marry her. Before that, Chastain just seems like a beautiful actress pretending to be plain and graceless, one who can't wait to get on her blush and blossom into the powerful woman Catherine becomes.

Surely, it was not Chastain's idea to make the shy Catherine so cartoon-maladroit that, each time she makes a low curtsy, this impeccably bred woman bows so low she appears to disappear behind the sofa as if doing a vaudeville mime routine.

In general, Kaufman seems not to trust the real breaking heart of the drama, as psychologically tuned as a well-made play can get without ever leaving the velvet prison of a parlor. Except for Strathairn's conflicted and complex father, the characters are so transparent in their motivations that we're not allowed to wonder who really wants what and why. Judith Ivey, as Catherine's supportive aunt, does one of those dithery-biddy acts that misses the poignancy of a widow who has known real romantic love, and the maid (Virginia Kull) seems to have wandered in from a neighboring farce.

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WHAT "The Heiress"

WHERE Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.

INFO $50-$135; 212-239-6200; theheiressonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Gorgeously decorated, emotionally simplistic

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