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Stage Reviews

House of the rising daughter

There is great satisfaction in seeing a virtuous man overcome the cruelty of his world. There is even greater satisfaction in seeing a woman do the same.

“The Heiress,” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, in production at Westchester Playhouse, follows a brief romance in the life of Catherine Sloper, the ungainly spinster daughter of a wealthy widower living in Washington Square in 1850s New York.

She lacks artificiality, from which her fellow women derive their physical beauty. She lacks guile, from which others derive their social manners. And so she seems, as her father terms her, a “mediocre and defenseless creature.”

He compares her unfavorably with her deceased mother, whom he repeatedly describes as perfect, until Catherine finally can tolerate no more. So when Morris Townsend comes to call, the sudden romance consumes her.

One may remember a previous stage or film version of this play, but director Gail Bernardi gives us a totally different slant. She has made Morris a fairly likeable and seemingly decent chap, leaving ambiguous whether he was truly after Catherine’s money. This version does what good theater should do — after the play, audience members actually discussed the story as they walked up the aisles, out the door and to their cars.

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As Catherine, Susan Gordon moves smoothly from youthful innocence and awkwardness to a Victorian Amazon, adept at both ends of her character’s arc.

Margie Bates as Lavinia, Catherine’s aunt and companion, is the only lead who does not use an 1850s New York accent, but her joyous support of Catherine is so true we overlook this.

Augustus Truhn is a comfortable, likeable Morris Townsend, with a handsome but not vain physical presence. Rebecca Winston also does superior work in her very few moments onstage as Mrs. Montgomery.

Nearly always the most interesting actor to watch, however, is Jack Rubens as the father. He has given his character a lifetime of experiences, and despite the deliberately old-fashioned dialogue and accents, his lines seem improvised.

In their scenes together, Rubens and Gordon show a shift in energy as the balance of power shifts between their characters — as she becomes spirited, her father visibly weakens.

The cast also includes Jeanne Bascom, Catherine Campbell, Steve Keeley and Cynthia Manous.

Sheldon Metz designed the substantial, workable and visually satisfying set, decorated by Michael Cohen with attention to the period.

“The Heiress” plays through June 12 at Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave. For information and schedule, call 645-5156.

All in the family

“Leftover Hearts” has some heart to it, as a young man reveals his loneliness and searches for the meaning of family.

But some forced exposition and cumbersome dialogue, as well as occasionally hollow acting, mar the effort of this “first work,” in production at the Studio Stras Theatre.

Sebastian and Jennifer meet in the reception area of a “doctor’s” office. Inside of a few seconds, she tells him, “I’m beginning to like you.” He reveals he was adopted and is now trying to locate his natural mother. She is pregnant and deciding what to do with herself. The two quickly decide to become roommates.

Jennifer soon reveals she is pregnant by her adoptive father. She wants an abortion, but Sebastian wants her to keep the baby so they can raise it together. He then wants to believe she is his natural sister because they both were born in Caracas.

In production by the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, this one-hour work written by Sasha Krane is not beyond repair. The dialogue needs pruning — lines like “I got so caught up in this conversation I forgot to ask you your name” add nothing except time to the piece. Scenes need smoother endings — “Do you want me to leave?” is no curtain line.

And most importantly, the characters need to grow or otherwise affect the audience. By the work’s end, Sebastian has changed not at all, leaving us to wonder whether anyone has ever told him he’s lonely and perpetually in search of love because he’s demanding, self-centered, closed-minded and obnoxious.

Director Don Eitner does well with the more background scenes, including one in which Sebastian relives his birth.

Josh Karch plays Sebastian, and Jill Simon plays Jennifer. Karen Tarleton does creditable work in dual roles of mother and doctor.

“Leftover Hearts” runs through May 28 at Studio Stras Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Tel. 323.650.7777.

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