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Theatre in Review: Little Women (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Ellen Harvey, Kate Hamill, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: James Leynse

Kate Hamill's apparent plan to dramatize every canonical nineteenth-century English-language novel, up to and including The Castle of Otranto, runs aground with her take on Louisa May Alcott's classic. With this one, she has to get in line and take a number: There are already at least six plays and musicals based on Little Women (including a West End semi-hit titled A Girl Called Jo) and a dozen feature and television films, three of which were released in the last two years. The durable popularity of the property surely has to do with the proto-feminist heroine, Jo March, who rejects conventional expectations of the time to pursue a career as a writer of blood-and-thunder novels. But, with all the competition, if you're going to do Little Women, you've got to come up with something fresh to say about it, something this production doesn't really do.

Hamill's adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice struck me as snarky and sophomoric -- one imagined Jane Austen turning in her grave -- but at least there was a genuine creative tension in the collision of her skeptical twenty-first-century viewpoint with Austen's Regency-era comedies of manners. Similarly, in her version of Vanity Fair, Hamill found common cause with William Makepeace Thackeray's scalding vision of an England crawling with schemers and social climbers. Here, she delivers a plodding, truncated account of Alcott's narrative -- eliminating, among other elements, Jo's sojourn in New York and her romance with Professor Bhaer -- that, under Sarna Lapine's flat, uninflected direction, never becomes engaging.

As opposed to the rude, sometimes raucous satire of her earlier adaptations, Hamill often seems lumbered by Alcott's moralizing tone; much of the time, this is a fairly straight-up, if unusually wan, Little Women, long on female empowerment and short on the evocative details of family life in Civil War-era Concord, Massachusetts. Hamill certainly gives it a go: Playing Meg, the sister who weds the stuffy scholar Brooks and struggles with marriage and motherhood, the playwright indulges in some of her trademark shtick, screwing up her face into fearsome arrangements, staging a massive coughing fit (it sounds like incipient TB) to warn Jo of a looming social error, and, cast as a damsel in distress in one of Jo's plays, screaming like a banshee. Other comic bits scattered through the evening -- for example, an actor impersonates a parrot in the home of Aunt March, sporting feathers on his head and delivering ear-splitting caws -- seem like half-hearted attempts at enlivening a faltering entertainment. Reading the program notes, one learns that Little Women has had "deep personal resonance" for Hamill since she was a young girl; watching it onstage, one would never guess.

Unsurprisingly, the playwright's main interest is the relationship between Jo, with her ambition to become a world-beating author, and Laurie, the lonely young heir who finds a surrogate home with the March family. Both characters are uncomfortable with the conventional sex roles of the period, a point that this production makes early and often. Throughout, Jo sports a man's three-piece suit, around which she occasionally wraps a skirt when social niceties demand; Laurie refers to her in masculine terms; and, faced with a proposal, Jo says, definitively, "I'm not like other women." Laurie repeatedly insists that rough-and-tumble boyhood is not for him, that he is far happier hanging around with the March sisters. So at odds are these characters with their gender identities that, for a moment or two, it looks like the action is unfolding on National Coming Out Day, but Hamill ultimately sticks to Alcott's scenario.

At the same time, the playwright's approach hammers the characters into two-dimensional figures. Jo makes so many speeches about planning to conquer the literary world that she becomes a bit of a bore; in Kristolyn Lloyd's relentlessly assertive performance, she shows so little affection for her sisters that the idea of her writing a novel about them, steeped in nostalgia, seems, on the face of it, absurd. Amy, the most conventional (and selfish) of the sisters, is, in other adaptations, often viewed with a comic eye; here, she is made so spiteful and shallow -- especially in Carmen Zilles' acid-etched performance -- that it's impossible to believe Laurie might eventually fall in love with her. (The incident in which Amy burns one of Jo's manuscripts -- moved to later in the story -- is given an unpleasant, Hedda Gabler edge; here, she destroys the novel that Jo is shopping to publishers, trying to raise enough money to get out of the house.) Beth, the story's conscience, is wanly rendered, her main function being to constantly plead with Jo to write about what she knows; as played by Paola Sanchez Abreu, she seems halfway to ghosthood long before her scarlet fever sets in.

A young Juilliard graduate, Nate Mann, makes an interesting debut as Laurie, giving the character reserves of delicacy and tact as he fruitlessly engages in the romantic pursuit of Jo. Michael Crane is touching as Brooks, trapped in his own reserve despite his obvious love for Amy. At the performance I attended, Maria Elena Ramirez, who plays Marmie, was out, but Megan Byrne, who stepped into the role, filled it capably. (Update: Mary Bacon is stepping into the role of Marmee.)

Perhaps reflecting the March family's reduced circumstances, the physical production is on the dowdy side. The skeletal, two-level set, by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, provides several playing areas, but it evokes nineteenth-century Concord not at all; it isn't helpful to stage Beth's sickbed scenes so far upstage, away from the audience. The costumes, by Valérie Thérèse Bart, are often unflattering, with a single outfit allotted to each character; this means Beth apparently goes about her business in the community wearing a nightgown. Paul Whitaker's lighting is fairly efficient, especially in the use of some attractive, delicately colored upstage washes, and Leon Rothenberg's sound design delivers a lovely piano underscoring as well as such ambient effects as a party in progress.

But this is an aimless entertainment that dutifully makes its points without much force or warmth or any sense of fun. It's telling that Hamill cuts off the story before Jo finds success as a writer and in a life -- as wife, mother, and schoolmistress -- with Professor Bhaer. Instead, this Little Women ends with everyone pretty much settled in a new life except for Jo, who is seated at her writing table, finally ready to take Beth's advice to write about her family. Her novel, I trust, will have a stronger point of view. --David Barbour

(12 June 2019)

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