11/01/2012 11:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Jessica Chastain as 'The Heiress' -- or Not

It's as simple as this: If you've got a play called The Heiress, it's absolutely obligatory that whoever assumes the eponymous role is utterly persuasive. Unfortunately, that's not the case at the Walter Kerr, where the 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz character study adapted from Henry James's Washington Square is revived with unfulfilled hope.

Jessica Chastain is -- well, really isn't -- Catherine Sloper, an unceasingly awkward young woman due to inherit $30,000 a year when her unloving father Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn) dies. It's the fortune, renowned in 1850 upper-class Manhattan circles, that perhaps serves as the sole reason charming but penniless Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens) pursues the often tongue-tied, graceless Catherine and seems to abandon her when he learns the entire inheritance won't materialize if she weds him.

In 2011, Chastain turned herself into flavor-of-the-Hollywood-year through four impressively varied performances -- The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Coriolanus -- to such an extent that she apparently struck a platoon of Broadway producers as a smart choice to topline a new treatment of the revered work. Were they thinking box office pull as well as talent? If so, they have overestimated the actress's familiarity to the ticket-buying public.

Although Chastain has some stage appearances on her resumé, this prestige assignment turns out to be a serious miscalculation. Throughout the first half, where Catherine's difficulty fitting into polite society is depicted, Chastain offers little more than a caricatured version of someone completely lacking social graces.

When, in the second half, Catherine at last rebels against her domineering father, the character may have, in Dr. Sloper's words, "found a tongue, at last," but she doesn't find a voice. By way of curiously flat readings, she short-changes some of the fired-up daughter's sternest, most memorable lines.

The only time Chastain finds a voice approximating the dignity Morris later ascribes to her is in the single word "Yes." She declares it when her chatty, optimistic Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Judith Ivey) exclaims of the returned-from-California and ostensibly contrite Morris, "Oh, Catherine, we have him back!" One word, however, does not a performance make.

With Chastain coming across as a void in the production -- and director Moisés Kaufman has to be as much to blame for the deficiencies as is his leading-lady -- it doesn't matter a great deal what happens with the supporting cast as they uniformly look great in Albert Wolsky's costumes and on Derek McLane's magnificent high-ceilinged vision of the richly-appointed Washington Square mansion a successful physician like Dr. Sloper would easily afford.

As Morris, Stevens -- imported from Downton Abbey for his Broadway bow -- doesn't help matters. His "gold-digger" suggests nothing of possible venality, and is instead a thoroughly convincing victim of Catherine's unconvincing appeal. But a Morris so taken with the young woman begs the question, "What can he possibly see in her when there have to be other New York City heiresses around to find him appealing?"

The effect of a Morris who only hints at predominant interest in the money late in the script reflects poorly on the dramatists' writing and is another of the director's missteps. Surely, if they -- or James -- intended Morris to fall head over heels for a dull and clumsy Catherine, they would have built more of a back story indicating, perhaps, his own reticent nature. But they didn't and surely didn't want to.

Well, good words are due Ivey, whose enthusiasm as Aunt Penniman is such that she amusingly races the ends of her sentences in order to get to her next breathless comment. Strathairn conveys the heartlessness of a man who, ironically, wields the latest in heart-reading stethoscopes. Among the others, Virginia Kull as Irish maid Maria, Caitlin O'Connell as the third of the elder Sloper siblings, Molly Camp and Kieran Campion as Catherine's happily married cousins Marian and Arthur are perfectly fine.

Morris's sister, Mrs. Montgomery, a widow with five children whom Morris is helping raise, is especially refreshing and touching as Dee Nelson interprets her. When Nelson enters -- summoned by Dr. Sloper when he's attempting to confirm his suspicions about Morris's true interests -- a longtime theater-goer can't be blamed for thinking maybe she's the one who should be the enterprise's Catherine.