'The Heiress,' 'Damn Yankees': Two Must-Sees on Broadway

THE HEIRESS

At the Cort Theatre.

ALL his life, American novelist Henry James longed for success as a dramatist. He never achieved it during his lifetime, but in 1947 a play based on his novel ''Washington Square'' became a Broadway hit and later, a successful film. Now, the Lincoln Center Theater (LCT) has revived Ruth and Augustus Goetz's dramatization, ''The Heiress.'' It is easily the most compelling play in town.

Although set in upper-crust New York City society in the 1850s, this is no stuffy period drama. It concerns the efforts of a wealthy, widowed doctor (Philip Bosco) to prevent his daughter Catherine (Cherry Jones) from falling into the clutches of a man whom he perceives to be a fortune hunter. There is no way, the doctor surmises, that the charming, handsome Morris Townsend (Jon Tenney), a man with no visible means, could be interested in her for anything but her money; Catherine, in his estimation, lacks both beauty and wit.

But Catherine is convinced it is true love, and during the resulting events, she blossoms to full, glorious life, only to have her spirit shattered when she realizes the true motives behind both Morris's and her father's actions. The emotions in this play, although leavened by upper-class manners and refined, witty language, are as stark as those in a Greek tragedy. It is a gut-wrenching illustration of the pain people can cause each other in the name of love.

The acting is flawless. Bosco, one of the most valuable performers in New York, contributes his typically superb work, delineating the doctor's brutality as well as his refinement.

Cherry Jones, a young actress who has established a name for herself during the past several years, gives a career-making performance, vividly illustrating Catherine's emotional transformations from wallflower repression to love-struck giddiness to bitter cruelty.

There is fine support from Tenney and from Frances Sternhagen as Catherine's hopeful but pragmatic aunt. The technical credits, from the setting to the costumes to the lighting, are first-rate.

Director Gerald Gutierrez, who also shepherded the recent LCT revival of ''Abe Lincoln in Illinois,'' has a genuine flair for bringing material that might have been stodgy or old-fashioned to glorious, vibrant life.

DAMN YANKEES

At the Marquis Theatre.

A FAMILIAR face is playing the Devil in the Broadway revival of the 1955 musical ''Damn Yankees,'' although it has never before been seen on Broadway. Jerry Lewis is making his Great White Way debut in the show, which just reopened after a two-month hiatus, and he's a lot of fun.

The actor and comedian, perhaps leery of the criticism that would befall him if he overdid his comic schtick, is at first restrained in the role. But by Act II, he loosens up and appears toe enjoying himself. It helps that he gets to cut loose with a couple of songs: ''Those Were the Good Old Days,'' a rousing number in which he throws in some soft-shoe and some cane juggling, and ''Two Lost Souls,'' a duet with Charlotte d'Amboise (playing Lola).

Lewis, nearly 70, tears into these songs with gusto, and brings the house down.

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