Rich Girl finds little purchase at the Old Globe’s theater in the round

Contested territory

Rich Girl Claudine is almost competent, has some business savvy, and dresses with frankness.
  • Rich Girl Claudine is almost competent, has some business savvy, and dresses with frankness.

Rich Girl

The only time it happened was at the old Old Town Theatre. I was watching a production of The Heiress, where a complete and total jerk courts rich, innocent, young Catherine. He was so obviously out for her inheritance, and she so naively ga-ga, I wanted to call a 20-second injury time-out, rush to the stage, and give her a crash course on the wiles of gold-digging louts.

The Heiress is based on Henry James’s short novel Washington Square. Catherine has one attraction: her late mother’s trust gives her $10,000 a year — in 1834 Manhattan dollars. When her overbearing father dies, she’ll have $10,000 more, even though she has “disappointed” him. Catherine has such a “plain, dull, gentle countenance,” James calls her “the softest creature in the world.” Plus, Catherine’s love of crème cakes has made her “so large, she looks as if she had been married already.”

Somehow, Morris Townsend, a low-end aristocrat who squandered his inheritance, falls for Catherine. And he seems sincere, she says, and “not like an actor.” But from my aisle seat he was dissembling to beat the band, and she was so gullible, I wanted to warn her that “here be dragon!”

The Old Globe’s hyper-energetic, hyper-shallow Rich Girl made me want to run the other way. Craig Noel made the original Cassius Carter Centre Stage the Globe’s experimental space. He staged demanding works by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, introduced Harold Pinter to San Diego, and banned lightweight, commercial “entertainment” — like Rich Girl — from the intimate theater in the round.

Victoria Stewart based her anti-romantic comedy on Washington Square (which James based on Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet), but with changes. It takes place today. Catherine is now Claudine. Instead of a domineering, woman-hating, wealthy father, she has controlling, man-hating, super-rich mother. Abandoned when she was eight months pregnant with Claudine, Eve rebuilt herself out of icicles. She turned her rage into a best-selling book, a TV show (Money Makeover), and a marble-floored Manhattan penthouse as glossy-white as a glacier.

Unlike Catherine, who’s just another flower on the wallpaper, Claudine is almost competent. She has some business savvy, a quality education, and dresses, as James said of Catherine, “with frankness”: beet-red hair, each outfit a Kandinsky of colors, black high-top shoes. But she’s a klutz socially and physically — watch out for those ancient Chinese vases! — and derives her worth solely from others.

In another change, Morris is now Henry. A former classmate of Claudine’s at Andover, he’s an impoverished theater director. But is he just playing a romantic lead, with her portfolio the prize? Could be. His previous lovers were at least five-feet-ten and blond (for patrons of the arts, Henry creates a sidebar conflict: if he is just fortune-hunting, maybe Claudine could still shoot his fledgling, “post-modern” troupe a few shekels?).

Like Catherine, Claudine becomes contested territory. Henry’s advances seem genuine. Eve counters with power tactics and disillusionment. But both could have agendas. Henry might be acting after all. And Eve, who bullies her TV audience as if one vast Claudine, could be blocking her daughter’s happiness out of sheer spite.

Rich Girl dabbles with some important questions, articulated far better in the program notes, about women and financial independence. During interludes, Eve urges her followers to see risks as positives — and “get a pre-nup!” But Meg Gibson’s vengeful, teeth-grinding (and convincing) bitterness make Eve a cautionary tale about the evils of materialism. The messenger undercuts the message.

As if aware of the split, the play changes key with a severe, medically induced attempt to garner Eve sympathy. But up to now, the story’s been an undemanding, jokes-first comedy. The characters are a smidge above cartoons. And as in sitcoms, even when the surface starts to roil, everyone’s serene underneath — until the sudden change of key.

In some ways, Mrs. Penniman’s the most interesting character in Washington Square. Catherine’s widowed aunt has no life of her own, so, much like Shakespeare’s Pandarus, she orchestrates Catherine and Morris’s moves as if directing a romantic comedy. Mrs. Penniman’s such a meddler, in fact, the story wouldn’t exist without her (nor would Troilus and Cressida without Pandarus).

Rich Girl turns Mrs. Penniman into Maggie, Eve’s executive assistant. Oddly passive for an agent of the plot, Maggie just changes allegiances depending on who’s in the room. Carolyn Michelle Smith merits richer roles, soon.

So does talented Lauren Blumenfeld. She gives Claudine a sweeping arc, but the script announces her changes for her — and explains her dilemma, for those missing the point, when she tells her mother, “Just because you can live without love doesn’t mean that I can!”

As smiling, attentive Henry, JD Taylor leaves ulterior motives to the eyes of his beholders. As does the ending. Instead of James’s slammed-door resolution, Rich Girl lets beholders write the finale. Will Claudine? Won’t she? There’s even a third, “What a Fool Believes” alternative from the Doobie Brothers: “But what seems to be is always better than nothing.”

Rich Girl, by Victoria Stewart

Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park

Directed by James Vasquez; cast: Lauren Blumenfeld, Meg Gibson, Carolyn Michelle Smith, JD Taylor; scenic design, Wilson Chin; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Amanda Zieve; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones

Playing through June 21; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-234-5623

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