The star of the Lyric Stage Company’s “Rich Girl” is not the rich girl of the title. Instead, it’s Celeste Oliva’s scene-stealing turn as Maggie, personal assistant to the rich girl’s mother. Oliva’s full-throttle performance adds some much-needed energy and personality to this play, which sags under the weight of so many clichés.
Playwright Victoria Stewart stays close to the structure of her source material — Henry James’s novel, “Washington Square” — until she doesn’t. James’s story, and Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s stage adaptation, “The Heiress,” focused on themes of deception and betrayal, and the limited options a young woman had in 1880, when James’s story was published. By updating the story to contemporary times, Stewart removes some of the rich girl’s barriers to independence, without replacing them with any feelings of loyalty or love, and without exploring these characters’ motivations beyond the most superficial level.
Set in the lavish apartment of Eve (Amelia Broome), a successful financial adviser and host of her own TV show, “Rich Girl” pits the bitter Eve against her plain, naïve daughter Claudine (Sasha Castroverde), with Maggie, the personal assistant, acting as referee. We first meet Claudine when she and Maggie are in a restaurant, waiting to meet an applicant to Eve’s foundation. Claudine has been instructed to say “no” to her first 100 applicants, and obediently follows orders, but the arrival of Henry (Joe Short), a struggling theater director hoping for a grant, throws her off balance. When Henry pursues her, proposing marriage at Christmas, Eve suspects him of being a gold digger and has him investigated. She also pushes Claudine to accompany her on a three-month excursion to Africa, hoping she’ll forget Henry.
Maggie, however, acts as matchmaker during Claudine’s absence, encouraging Henry’s pursuit of Claudine, and in one of the play’s oddest scenes, getting drunk with him, making us wonder if she’s going to seduce him. Of course, when Eve and Claudine return from Africa, Henry is waiting, and Eve issues the ultimate threat to her daughter: Marry him and you will be disinherited. Henry hesitates, and as Claudine waits, he leaves a series of apologies and explanations on her voice mail.
The final moments of “The Heiress” were heart-wrenching as we watched our heroine choose her future, but the final moments of “Rich Girl” are as shallow as everything that’s come before.
Director Courtney O’Connor does a great job keeping her actors from getting too bogged down in Stewart’s lame dialogue, but it’s almost impossible to rise above lines like “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you” and “You wanted me to be unloved forever to teach me a lesson.”
Stewart’s cardboard characters make it difficult to care about anyone on this stage besides Maggie. Oliva’s loose-limbed comic delivery is a welcome relief from the stiff stereotypes around her. But it’s not enough to save this play.