There’s a new girl in town, but the hitch is that she doesn’t really appear new until near the end of Victoria Stewart’s seriously funny “Rich Girl,” now having its world premiere at the George Street Playhouse. The rich girl in question is Claudine (Crystal Finn). She is the monumentally klutzy, stunningly unsophisticated 26-year-old daughter of Eve (Dee Hoty), a successful, immensely wealthy 50-year-old woman. In addition to heading a large philanthropic foundation, Eve is also a noted TV personality and lecturer on business investments and financial security for women.
We can see right from the start that Claudine feels inadequate in the shadow of her icily parental mother’s success. The daughter has a long way to go before she will get full approval from her and become that really new girl in town. If this play seems (pardon the cliche) ripped from the headlines, its theme and message share a kinship with the current bestseller “Lean In” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in that it gives us a perspective of the cost of success and its effect on personal relationships.
Stewart runs with the basic situation of a plain-looking woman who feels unloved by a parent while also feeling that she might be loved for herself by a man. The playwright twists the basic plot just enough to give the notion of money as power and women as power brokers, a resonance that should make Ms. Sandberg’s heart sing.
Stewart, who has worked as a professional stage manager and has evidently moved on to write plays, has purportedly been working on various drafts of “Rich Girl” for the past five years. I rate it a success. How could she have known how timely her play would be, particularly as it is a cleverly contemporized adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square” that Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted dramatically as “The Heiress” — a splendid revival of which played earlier this season on Broadway?
But as “The Heiress” is faithful to the novel’s plot, time, and setting, Stewart brings that story of an impossibly gullible young woman who falls in love with a possibly too smooth young fortune hunter into the context of a posh high rise apartment in present-day New York City. She does it by finessing what the future held for a woman of means in the 19th century into what the present prospects are for love and success for a financially independent, career-motivated woman of today.
Though there is a certain predictability that comes with the territory, Stewart’s play happily goes about redefining the novel’s 19th-century set of family values, social mores, and business ethics as they might likely apply to our current value systems. “Rich Girl” spins the original’s romantic intrigue, crafty deceptions, and misguided affections into a generally breezy confection, while also retaining the more seriously intended essentials in the plot.
This co-production between the George Street Playhouse and the Cleveland Play House (where the play will move following this engagement) is smartly written and often diverting. However, it seems to be divided into two separate sections. The first half is almost giddily glib, even silly; the second half becomes serious if not trenchantly sad. Nevertheless, director Michael Bloom, Cleveland Play House artistic director, nicely handles the abrupt changes in the play’s tone and mood. The actors do their part in keeping pace with a comedy that hurtles almost precariously from airborne to earthbound reality.
The overly protective controlling father in the original has been reconceived as an autocratic, controlling mother, a role that the terrific Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee who has appeared in Arthur Laurent’s “2 Lives” and the Pinter play “Old Times” at GSP, plays to the hateful hilt (imagine Joan Crawford in almost anything). She is spectacularly attired for cold-hearted success by designer Jennifer Caprio. Eve, who reveals to Claudine that her one and only marriage was an unmitigated disaster, is so relentlessly mean, callous, and calculating that it’s a wonder that the improbably immature Claudine has survived her unconscionably hurtful nurturing for 26 years.
The real question is whether Claudine has the stuff to stand her ground when it comes to romance, as well as the wherewithal to take over mommie dearest’s lucrative foundation when Eve reveals it may be sooner than later. Finn has a firm command of Claudine’s disarming goofiness and poignant neediness. But is there something besides her wealth and her dyed-pink hair (don’t ask) that makes her a target of Henry (Tony Roache), a personable, good-looking theater director who says he remembers Claudine from high school? Roache is perfect as the cannily persuasive Henry, whose attractiveness is not lost on Eve’s assistant Maggie (Liz Larsen). She, like the humorously conciliatory spinster Aunt Lavinia in “The Heiress,” gets by mostly by saying flippantly witty things the way Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter did for years in the movies.
Eve, who is seriously ill but still in charge, suspects that Claudine — the heir to her estate — may not see the real man behind the man of her dreams, a man who has been applying for financial aid from the foundation to fund his impoverished theater company. The question, as you may surmise, remains whether Claudine believes her mother’s strong misgivings about Henry and his motives, or whether she should risk being hurt, especially in the light of her own mother’s failed marriage.
Eve, who lectures on money issues and investments on TV much like financial guru Suze Orman, would like to see certain legal details regarding marriage considered, such as a pre-marital agreement. Short segments of Eve’s lectures serve as bridges to the scenes, most of which take place in a posh (smartly designed by Wilson Chin) New York City apartment. This play makes it appear that the economic bridge that spans between 1880 and 2013 is distanced enough now so that a rich girl can make the right choices for the wrong reasons, or is it the other way around? I’m not telling.
Rich Girl, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, April 7. $28 and up. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.