Downton Abbey Dish #8

Deborah Gilbert | October 15, 2012

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

I sure had a fun time last weekend: Call the Midwife‘s second episode (how much do you love Chummy?), the premier of Upstairs Downstairs (to quote Indiana Jones, “Nazis. I hate those guys.”), and it was the beginning of previews for The Heiress on Broadway, co-starring our own Downton Dish, Dan Stevens. And as it happened, I had invitations for the first two performances. Talk about luck! On Saturday night (which I believe was actually the final dress rehearsal), we got to sit second row center, and at the Sunday matinee we got to watch from the nosebleed section. And it looked great from both seats.

The Heiress is based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square, and takes place in the 1850’s. It was first produced on Broadway in 1947. Two years later it was an Oscar-winning movie starring Olivia DeHaviland and Montgomery Clift, and has seen a few Broadway revivals since. It is about the awkward daughter, Catherine (played by Jessica Chastain), of a well-respected but verbally abusive father, Dr. Sloper (played by David Strathairn). Catherine is essentially emotionally imprisoned by her domineering father who has never forgiven his only child for his wife’s death in childbirth. He can be kind to the maid, but not his daughter. The only bit of light in the home is provided by her ditzy, widowed Aunt Lavinia (played by Broadway legend Judith Ivey). Things seem to brighten for Catherine when a young man, Morris Townsend (McDishy) comes courting, but what are his motives? Does he love her, or does he just love her money?

This is McDishy’s Broadway debut and a chance to go from playing hero to cad, and he does it well. We think we know Morris’ motives, but then his charm leaves us with questions. And you’ll get a shock when Dan appears because for this character, an American, he speaks with a perfect American accent. During intermission Saturday night, I had a brief chat with Dan’s wife Susie and I asked her how he learned to do the American accent so well and she replied, “He’s a parrot,” and went on to say he is great with all accents, and had a coach helping him.

Another thing that struck me about the production was, even though their personalities are very, very different, Aunt Lavinia reminded me (a bit) of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and she may you as well. Where the Dowager is strong and sharp-tonged, Aunt Lavinia is light and outwardly sweet, but they are essentially the same type of character. Though mostly what makes them feel similar to me is that they are both played by such powerhouse actresses. I felt absolute marvel watching Judith Ivey’s acting brilliance at work – close-up (from the second row, hello!), Ivey is simply breathtaking to watch, with her nuance and timing and the way she embodies a character, she steals every scene. I know it’s early, but I don’t think it’s too soon to say I think she will get a Tony nomination for this performance. And I wondered, for McDishy, was playing opposite Judith Ivey anything like playing opposite Dame Maggie Smith?

I always love to see shows multiple times, when I can get the chance, because it’s fun to see the changes they make. There were some difference in cues, and inflection of a couple of words here and there. But one big difference we noticed was that on Saturday night, the first public performance, Catherine tripped going up the stairs twice – which worked well with the awkwardness of the character, and got laughs from the audience. But during the Sunday matinee she didn’t trip at all so we were left wondering why they took it out.

After the Sunday matinee, my friend and I waited by the stage door. I normally don’t hang out by stage doors (hard to believe, I know), but in the name of research, I felt I had to ask McDishy my burning question. First out the door though was Jessica Chastain, and as she was going by (signing autographs and posing for pictures with the fans waiting at the barricade), I said I noticed they took her trips on the stairs out and asked her whether they were intentional. She laughed and said, “No, I’m a klutz!” A few minutes later Dan came out and as he was making his way around I asked him, is working with Judith Ivey anything like working with Dame Maggie Smith? He smiled and replied, “Ooooh! They’re both great dames! I know you don’t have dames here, but if you did, Judith Ivey would be one.” And by the way, another reason to love him? He was wearing an Obama 2012 button on his messenger bag.

The Heiress is definitely worth your time. There are some laughs and some heartbreak, and the whole cast is fantastic (I know I haven’t even mentioned David Strathairn yet, but he’s great as well!). Since seeing it last weekend, I’ve wondered to myself what might have happened to the characters after the play ended. To me that’s always the mark of a great play, book or movie: when it creates characters you care so much about, you want them to go on living. If you want my advice (and who doesn’t?), run to buy your tickets now! And better yet, THIRTEEN is offering special tickets to three performances of The Heiress along with a post-show chat with the cast. You can see a great show, meet the cast and support your favorite public television station at the same time. Find out more at

Oh, to be in England: Especially this coming weekend; Jim Carter (better known as Carson the Butler) is going to be hosting a charity event called ‘Conversation with Carson’ to benefit Avenue House, a historic Estate in Finchley, North London that was bequeathed to the people of Finchley when the lord of the manor passed away in 1918 (sounds like a story ripped from a Downton script, doesn’t it?). This champagne tea will be followed by a Q&A and chance to mingle. If you can jet to London for the weekend, here’s all the info you’ll need to attend.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia: Laura Carmichael (AKA the luckless Lady Edith), who has said that one of her goals is to play on Broadway, is about to open in London’s West End in Uncle Vanya. It’s an Anton Chekhov comedy about a dysfunctional family living on a rural estate. Laura costars as Sonya, the daughter who suffers from unrequited love and insecurity over her looks, and she’s playing opposite her childhood crush Sam West no less (that’s so Edith, isn’t it?). Here you can see a bit of a chat show interview with them both from the BBC.

Mazel Tov: Last Saturday Joanne Froggatt (AKA the loyal Anna) wed her long-time love James Cannon, in a traditional church wedding, with some of her Downton Abbey cast mates present. No word on whether she calls her hubby James or Mr. Cannon, but we wish them both lots of mazel and a long, happy life together!

Say What?: Anyone else loathe seeing PBS made an issue in the first Presidential debate? The reality is, there isn’t a politician alive who wouldn’t wish to be held in as high regard as Big Bird. I believe the Dowager Countess of Grantham said it best, in a line that seems to have been spoken for this occasion, “It always happens when you give these little people power: it goes to their heads like strong drink.” Harumph!