Lyric Stage's "Rich Girl": Lighter Than "Heiress"

Amelia Broom, Sasha Castroverde & Joe Short
in "Rich Girl"
(photo: Nerys Powell)
If the premise of “Rich Girl”, Lyric Stage Company’s current offering, seems familiar, it’s because it should be. Written by Victoria Stewart, it’s based on the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James (adapted as a play, “The Heiress”, in 1947, with two subsequent film versions in 1949 and 1997). The story is basically the same, the reluctance on the part of a wealthy parent to approve a daughter’s choice of a suitor, who is suspected of being more interested in money than in love. But the similarities pretty much end there. This is far, far from the melodrama one might expect, but is in fact a story with a distinctively lighter touch. As directed here by Courtney O’Connor in its New England premiere, it’s a fundamentally rejuvenated look at an age-old quandary, from a much more comedic point of view. Stewart doesn’t just update this basic idea, but takes it in ingenious directions one doesn’t expect. By the time some family conflicts are reconciled, you’ve heard from a wonderfully creative new voice in the theater.

Eve (Amelia Broom), a divorced CNBC “celebrity financial guru” (think Suze Orman) heads her own foundation, and is a self-described “truth-teller”. Claudine (Sasha Castroverde), her clumsy and unsophisticated daughter with rebellious hair the color of an overripe aubergine, is being groomed to take over the foundation. Maggie (Celeste Oliva), Eve’s personal assistant (think Eve Arden), provides a buffer between them when Henry (Joe Short), a theatrical artist in a dirt-poor, off-off-Broadway company, reencounters Claudine, whom he hasn‘t seen since high school. He’s looking partly for a grant, and perhaps more than she takes for granted. In one telling encounter, Henry says very pointedly to Eve: “Do I like money? Sure. Money does, after all, buy happiness. They say it doesn’t, but you and I both know the statistics. It does.” Eve has already told her television audience about what her priorities are for necessary “financial intimacy”: “When a man and a woman love each other, truly love each other, they will want…to sign…a pre-nup” (with an emergency fund for the first eight months). Her motto, parroted back by her followers, is “Honesty First”, which she brutally demonstrates when she tells Claudine that giving birth to her ruined her life. Claudine retorts that her mother “wanted me to be unloved forever to teach me a lesson”. Occasional referee Maggie comments to Claudine: “You’re loved, but that’s not enough to convince you that you’re loveable.”

To walk the tightrope between the tragic and the satirical in this play, without resorting to caricature or stooping to the level of sit-coms, might present too much of a challenge in lesser hands. Fortunately, O’Connor has assembled a cast that’s more than capable of pulling this off. Broom has a field day with the role of the truly sadistic mother, which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw her dominating diva last season in New Rep’s “Master Class”; her Eve and her garden of evil are relentless, even when the secret of some of her personal issues surfaces, too long hidden beneath that snake-oil saleswoman. Castroverde is an appealingly vulnerable klutz who eventually morphs into the woman even her monster of a mother could love, an intensely believable metanoia from wallflower to Venus fly trap. Oliva, a familiar presence on Lyric’s stage, has never been better, though one might wish she would slow down her pace a bit when cracking wise. Last but not least is Short as the enigmatic would-be suitor, keeping cast and audience wondering as to whether Henry’s intentions are honorable or mercenary, and whether he loves Claudine as she does him; he’s both appealingly earnest and unnervingly suspect at the same time. The discerning of fact from possible fiction frames the dilemma. The work of the technical crew aids considerably in establishing this piece. The Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield is amazingly suggestive given the limited confines of Lyric’s venue, aided by the perfectly focused Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and authentically appropriate Sound Design by Brendan F. Doyle, not to mention the fine Costume Design by Mallory Frers. All contribute to the successful modernization of this time-honored conflict.

Without divulging too much about the plot’s twists and turns, it could be said that this version is about risk and regret, and reconciliation, but not necessarily the kind of reconciliation one might expect. Even Claudine herself recognizes that the term “reconciliation” can mean a merely financial one. And Maggie sums up the irony of all ironies: “If he acts as though he loves you, and you act as though you love him, how is that different from being in love with one another?” It’s an even more cynical view than that of Henry James, despite coming from the comical sidekick. Maggie also notes at one point when considering a move: “Washington Square is beautiful”, a real inside Jamesian joke. Well, maybe, but beauty is only skin deep. As the final scene arrives, we finally learn the fate of these tortured relationships (or maybe not). Those who have awaited the heiress’ decision in past productions, just as with another certain play as to whether Nora will slam that door of her dollhouse, will just have to wait a bit longer to see how this one comes out. One thing will be certain at the curtain: you won’t be quite the same audience coming out as you were going in. And, richer or poorer, that’s the very modern model of thought-provoking theater.

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