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Theatre in Review: Pride and Prejudice (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Kate Hamill, Jason O'Connell. Photo: James Leynse.

The Bennet sisters have those Wedding Bell Blues -- quite literally so in their latest incarnation, at the Cherry Lane: The Fifth Dimension classic is heard as the first act of Pride and Prejudice comes to a close. This is hardly a surprise, as the show begins with the cast performing the Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders classic "The Game of Love." Perhaps you don't associate such pop tunes with Jane Austen, but we are in the world of Kate Hamill, known for her aggressively contemporary adaptations of nineteenth-century British novels. This approach worked pretty well for Vanity Fair, a panoramic satire populated by a gallery of grotesques. It was far less successful with Sense and Sensibility, which, with its parade of self-referential gags, was especially deficient in the latter quality of the title. Now comes Hamill's take on what is, arguably, Austen's greatest work. Where will it all end? Will Hamill's labors not cease until she has had her way with the entire canon, not excluding Bleak House and Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

Perhaps she should take a pass at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for each of her works shares a kind of double identity, closely following the original plot while larding the action with asides, slapstick gags, and musical sequences that act as so many footnotes, providing a running commentary on the quaintness of it all. This time out, she has a different director, Amanda Dehnert, who has made no discernible difference. Previously, I have faulted her director, Eric Tucker, but Hamill is, quite plainly, the auteur of these productions. For her labors, she has earned the respect of many reviewers, who cheer her for not falling back on a certain Masterpiece Theatre fustiness. Fair enough: Since the world needs another version of Pride and Prejudice -- which, in addition to the usual films and miniseries, has also been a flop Broadway musical and a horror film with a cast of zombies -- like it needs a flu epidemic, one can sympathize with the playwright's search for a fresh vision. But anyone purchasing a ticket to the attraction at the Cherry Lane better have a good idea of what lies in wait there.

For example, we are presented with the four Bennet sisters (down from five in the novel, Catherine having been excised, presumably in the name of concision), with one of them, Mary -- generally known as the plain one -- played by John Tufts on a single note of sullen, spinsterish rage. (She frequently sneaks up on her relatives, sending them into paroxysms of screaming.) Jane Bennet, delayed at the home of Charles Bingley (to whom she is attracted) by a bad cold, enters the drawing room with a piece of tissue in her nose; when told about it, she discreetly pops it into her mouth, only to accidentally spit it out a moment later. Mrs. Bennet, training her daughters to hunt husbands, has them perform exercises to a military cadence ("Chest and bum and eyes and smiles/Catch that man with female wiles!"). Mrs. Bennet, eager to get rid of Mr. Darcy, whom she considers a drag on the marriage market, pulls down his pants, exposing his underwear to a roomful of ball guests. The music at the ball, by the way, includes "Unchained Melody" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke."

The case for this sort of fooling around is that a classic is supposedly being given new life, making it accessible to modern audiences -- an argument that is significantly weakened by the fact that Hamill and her collaborators apply the same shtick to Austen, Thackeray, and, presumably, whoever is next. It might help if these bits of business were executed with more precision, but there is far too much mugging, shouting, and running around, all of which proves wearying. Leading the way in such activities is Hamill, as Lizzy Bennet, whose halting romance with the initially forbidding Mr. Darcy provides the tale with its dramatic spine. I'm not saying that Hamill should copy the work of such predecessors in the role as Keira Knightley, Jennifer Ehle, or even, God help us, Greer Garson. But I do wish she wouldn't sneer so much, her gimlet gaze matched with a gaping mouth and an upper lip curled like a carpet ready to be unfurled. She approaches the role with the skepticism of a twenty-first-century woman who can't believe the social contortions through which her pre-Victorian sisters were put, but the result is surprisingly sour; her Lizzy's prejudice proves to be far more off-putting than Mr. Darcy's pride. Indeed, Jason O'Connell's Mr. Darcy is a thing of real delicacy, a true portrait of a decent, intelligent man hamstrung by his priggish nature, especially as, warming to Lizzy, he struggles to find the words that would win her sympathetic attention. The other standout performance is given by Amelia Pedlow as Jane, who, in her bearing and manner, seems to come directly from Austen's world.

The rest of the cast members have their moments. If Tufts' approach to Mary is too ham-handed by half -- he comes across as a refugee from a varsity drag show -- he is first-rate as Charles Bingley, who, despite his affection for Jane, is too easily led by others. Mark Bedard is just right as duplicitous Mr. Wickham, who woos Lizzy with lies about Darcy, confessing that he is too honest, then scanning the audience, looking for detractors; he also makes an impression as Bingley's sister, whose glacial manner makes any interaction all but impossible. (His approach to Mr. Collins, the man of the cloth who wants to marry Lizzy, is creepy rather than funny.) Kimberly Chatterjee delivers strikingly different, and effective, portraits of Lydia, the most heedless of the Bennet girls, and the terrifying Lady Catherine, who wants Darcy for her own daughter. Nance Williamson and Chris Thorn are a finely matched pair as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; he doubles reasonably well as Charlotte Lucas, who is also being shopped around to the local gentry. With such an adept cast, if Hamill and Dehnert could dial back the frenetic tone about fifty percent, they might be able to have their teacake and eat it, too.

The production unfolds on John McDermott's set, a collection of furniture pieces and props scattered around a bare stage, with Eric Southern's fluid, tasteful lighting providing the necessary changes of time frame and location. Tracy Christensen's costume design is especially clever for a play that requires so much doubling: The ladies are in white dresses that look like undergarments and the men sport trousers and collarless shirts, using an overgarment to assume each character. Palmer Hefferan's sound design provides all of the required pop tune excerpts, and even a bit of "Nessun Dorma" for Mary in a moment of crisis.

Many in the audience at the performance I attended were clearly delighted by these hijinks, and surely Austen and whoever else the playwright takes on can stand the kidding. But must it be so blatant, so juvenile? Couldn't a little Austen-style sophistication sneak into the proceedings? Well, whatever -- as Elizabeth Bennet might say, at least in the Kate Hamill version. I just hope nobody gives Hamill a copy of Middlemarch for Christmas. I'm not ready for her Dorothea Casaubon. -- David Barbour

(28 November 2017)

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