Love Puzzle

A young woman looks for love in all the wrong places in Rich Girl

It's too bad Consumer Reports doesn't have a rating system for men, so women could compare features of prospective male romantic partners and see which models have been recommended. (No doubt men, gays and lesbians would appreciate a similar guide.)

Alas, we are left with the guessing game that is love, which forms the centerpiece of the amusing and occasionally thought-provoking play Rich Girl. It's now at the Cleveland Play House, in a co-production with the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey.

Basically, this is a chick flick dropped onto a stage, as it deals with dating and romance, the oppressive demands of money, and a mother-daughter relationship from one of the nastier rings of Hell. Deft direction by Michael Bloom and a solid four-person cast bring out the humor while also managing to land a couple substantial reflections on our culture.

Adapted by Victoria Stewart from the Henry James' novel Washington Square, which was previously retold on film and recently on stage as The Heiress, the story of Rich Girl has a long track record of popularity. And that's because it deals with the enduring question of love—both romantic amour and the love between parent and child. Themes don't get a lot more universal than that.

Claudine is the clumsy, rather unlovely and, we are told, not terribly bright 26-year-old daughter of media financial guru Eve, an accomplished woman who possesses an emotional portfolio brimming with bitterness stemming from a long-ago divorce. While Claudine unloads her dating miseries on her mom's longtime assistant, Maggie, a chance meeting with stud muffin Henry starts ringing bells in Claudine's dormant heart.

Henry, however, is also a struggling theater person with a pile of debts. This raises red flags for Eve, who then starts to question the man's sudden interest in her plain Jane daughter. She even dedicates one episode on her CNBC show to "Deception."

The first act plays like a TV sitcom, with slapstick, easy jokes about sex and such (Claudine, complaining about her mom's over-protective nature: "It's not like I'm a virgin!" Eve: "Then stop acting like one.").

But then, the script does a post-intermission flip and turns decidedly darker. Eve comes on strong, telling Claudine that she "ruined her life." Claudine responds by noting that, "You knew I was unlovable because you didn't love me."

Sure, mother-daughter relationships can be fraught, but the intensity of this one comes a bit out of the blue. Add to that Henry's mysterious disappearance after the engagement and the fact that Eve is in remission from cancer, and you have enough emotional turmoil for a couple potboilers.

Playwright Stewart updates the musty old story in useful ways, particularly in making the daughter's nemesis her mother (it was her father in the original version).

Still, the cast holds all of this together for the most part. As Eve, experienced Broadway performer Dee Hoty is icy and sharp, slicing her daughter and Henry with the efficiency of a master carver.

Crystal Finn is believable as the loosely wrapped Claudine, bumbling and stumbling her way to some hard-earned self realization. And Tony Roach is left with the thankless task of seeming to love someone, but not really...maybe—all so the mystery of his motives can be maintained.

Many of the laughs come from Liz Larsen as tat-tongued Maggie, a woman who can put a barbed point on relationship struggles. As she says to Henry, "If only you were married, older, balding and on the Internet, you'd be perfect for me."

This handsome production features an elegant set by Wilson Chin (except for the weirdly rent-to-own looking couch).

Stewart crafts a bundle of laugh lines, which make Rich Girl a fun trip. But the oddly matched acts and a defiantly oblique ending make the journey a bit less satisfying than it might be.