The purpose of a man is to love a woman,/And the purpose of a woman is to love a man,/So come on baby let’s start today, come on baby let’s play/The game of love, love, la la la la la love… sings the multi-talented, white-gowned and breech-clad cast moving with happy synchronicity. (Wayne Fontana – “Game of Love”) Yes, you’re in the right theater.
Playwright Kate Hamill, frustrated by “the dearth of complex-female centered characters and story lines …” is mining classic literature possessing that which she finds currently lacking. Pride And Prejudice, which comes to New York from The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, follows rollicking productions of Sense and Sensibility and Vanity Fair. Hamill reinterprets with irreverent glee, one foot in the appropriate era, the other is contemporary time, never eschewing pivotal plot.
Amelia Pedlow, John Tufts, Chris Thorn, Nance Williamson, Kate Hamill, and Kimberly Chatterjee
For those few of you unfamiliar with Austen’s novel, one might say it’s about the blood sport of husband hunting in Georgian England. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Chris Thorn and Nance Williamson, both warmly believable) have four daughters to advantageously marry off: 14 year-old, motor mouth Lydia – here with a tendency to get drunk (Kimberly Chatterjee who overdoes the childishness of this role); pretty, genteel Jane (Amelia Pedlow, superb in every way); ugly, put-upon Mary (hilariously embodied by a Goth John Tufts) who coughs so persistently, Mr. Bennet finally exclaims, “Have consumption and be done with it!” And our heroine Lizzy (Kate Hamill), who sees courtship as a facile game that can achieve only unfulfilling liaisons.
Mrs. Bennet is clumsily aggressive while Mr. Bennet, not uncaringly just wants to be left alone to read his paper while his girls find their way. When the estate next door is let by rich, eligible, here, puppy-like Mr. Bingley (Tufts-another bull’s-eye) -he pants and fetches a ball thrown by Darcy and his snobbish sister Caroline (the mercurial Mark Bedard whose finesse can’t be overrated), mom goes to work. The cherry on top might be Bingley’s houseguest, Mr. Darcy (Jason O’Connell, inhabiting farce and drama with equal plummy skill) who has double his friend’s income. Two daughters offloaded for the price of one!
Mark Bedard, John Tufts, Jason O’Connell
Long story somewhat short – Lizzy is offended by Darcy’s manner (he enters to the storm trooper theme from Star Wars) and a lie told by cad Mr. Wickham (Bedard, with silky bravado) while Darcy is put off by her lack of station. Multiple good deeds fix this and despite palpable (oh the suffering!), respective unwillingness, they fall in love.
Meanwhile Bingley adores Jane from whom he’s parted and reunited by Darcy. Lydia, who appears to be ensnared by Mr. Wickham, in fact, ensnares him. And prissy cousin, Clergyman Collins (Bedard in tick-enhanced, nasal glory,) who will inherit their home because the Bennett’s have no sons, fixes on neighboring Charlotte (Thorn playing it beautifully straight) when rejected by Lizzy.
Chris Thorn, Kate Hamill, Amelia Pedlow, and Mark Bedard
Despite the machinations of Collin’s patroness Lady Catherine DeBourgh (Chatterjee, an admirably imperious portrayal), everyone except Mary finds a mate. In one inventive histrionic fit, Mary gestures to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” (Turandot), gliding up the aisle, arm outstretched like an Edward Gorey character, muttering “keep applauding, this is a long exit.” The actor then runs around the theater backstage – clump, clump, clump and returns to the stage whipping on Bingley’s cravat. Our audience is beside itself.
Call-out military drills, line dancing, frugs, waltzes (Ellenore Scott’s Choreography is buoyant) and any number of oddly apt 1950s songs keep the production at full musical tilt without swallowing up its story. The aisle is skillfully employed. Actors play guitar and piano. “Bits” involving uncooperative chairs (Bedard) and a tangled coat (O”Connell) are silent film worthy. The company, who developed character idiosyncrasies during early development, are adroit with high-low humor. It’s a pleasure to observe the appreciative camaraderie of those not participating in a scene as they watch their peers cavort.
Kimberly Chatterjee and Amelia Pedlow
With all this, intermittent gravitas reminds us emotions are present below the froth. Sometimes it’s a moment of acknowledgment, others, as in Lizzy and Darcy’s later confrontations, galvanize sympathy.
I’m afraid that, like her appearance in Vanity Fair, Hamill embodies her character with less insight and more ham than that with which her fellows manifest theirs. Perhaps the director thinks an author is untouchable. While mostly redeemed by Act II (she can clearly act), the first part finds her tantrum-LOUD, dissonant, and thoroughly unappealing in the part of a young woman who may have a biting tongue and progressive ideas but is, in every outward way, attractive and ladylike. This is not to say Lizzy can’t be funny, but that Hamill’s performance looks like trenchant vaudeville while the others are executing farce.
Kate Hamill and Jason O’Connell
Director Amanda Dehnert helms this screwball scenario with a sure hand (excepting Ms. Hamill and Lydia’s repeatedly jumping on Wickham-really?!). In turn artfully goofy, arch, and exuberant, the production shows an excellent editorial eye. What could often be chaos emerges as well calibrated romp, in almost constant movement, but never messy. Costume/character changes are cleverly mined for humor. Pace is brisk, but knows when to pause.
With laughter at a premium these days, Pride and Prejudice arrives a welcome catharsis. Go! Have fun!
John McDermott’s minimal Set utilizes choice elements to place us. Tracy Christensen’s Costumes are splendid. The facility with which these are changed enhances antic goings on.
Photos by James Leynse
Opening: The Company
Primary Stages presents
Pride And Prejudice by Kate Hamill
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Through January 6, 2018