Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Sense and Sensibility

Jane on the Brain: Science of Social Intelligence Meets Jane Austen


The thought of Darcy and Elizabeth as walking computers, calculating the sum of neural activity, is likely to irritate many Austen enthusiasts.

2017 marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.  Through the centuries she has endured as certainly one of the greatest novelists of all time if not the greatest.  What has been the secret to her remarkable success and longevity?  Well obviously, her trademark acidic wit and brilliant observation of the society she lived in are key elements.  But, former English professor and practicing psychotherapist Wendy Jones argues that what truly elevates Austen above, say, Georgette Heyer, was her remarkable empathy and rich understanding of human psychology.  Indeed, Jones argues in Jane on the Brain that Austen’s works contain insight into the deepest realms of the human mind.

To that end, Jones offers us a unique blend of literary analysis, psychology, and the latest cutting-edge discoveries of neuroscience.  The ball at Meryton that is the kickoff event for Pride and Prejudice is deconstructed according to what happens when Darcy’s first sight of Elizabeth travels through the retina and optic nerve to register in the pre-frontal cortex.  And in that long, convoluted journey therein lies why he first considered Lizzie only ‘tolerable.’ Marianne’s disastrous reunion with Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility is connected to the automatic nervous system and Jones considers Marianne’s heartbreak a textbook definition of clinical depression.  Emma Wodehouse (Emma) is a model in self-deception.  Such legendary literary nightmares like Sir Walter Elliott of Persuasion and John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey show all the earmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and so on. 

Jones even illustrates how Austen’s understanding of self-control and empathy are the bedrocks of civilization as we know it and key to leading a moral, emotionally healthy life.  Of course as Jones also makes clear there are a few tricks with applying Regency era norms to our era.  In fact the first thing Jones mentions in the introduction is that applying Austen’s formula for matrimony (gratitude and esteem) led to her unhappy first marriage.  Turns out these days when women can support themselves the value of passion and romance has greatly increased.  And nobody marries first cousins anymore either.

It makes for a complicated and sometimes dense (a lot of technical jargon here!) read but one that never fails to interest the leader even if you don’t always agree with her conclusions.  Consider it the beginning of a discussion as it were.  Perhaps one that should be had over scones and tea.

A Helter-Skelter Vanity Fair


Author Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was one of the best pieces of theater I saw last year – wildly imaginative, yet true to Jane Austen, its complications made clear. That (Bedlam) production was also Directed by Eric Tucker. I can’t imagine what happened between then and now.

2 girls

Joey Parsons, Kate Hamill

Though there are both original approaches and positive similarities besides furniture on wheels, portions of this staging feature everyone speaking at once while they all tear around the stage like beheaded chickens. Result? Clamorous incomprehension. A farting segment is lowbrow to the extreme. Some of the actors play it straight, others are so over the top one winces at every appearance. How is it a group of inmates took over the asylum while others…? Direction is as uneven as acting. It’s as if the production can’t make up its mind.

Debargo Sanyal’s George is wonderfully narcissistic, but virtually everyone else he embodies is painful to watch (and hear). Brad Heberlee occupies multiple roles like an over-smoked ham. Ryan Quinn plays William Dobbin mercifully straight, but without eliciting much sympathy and otherwise joins Heberlee. Farce only works if you don’t keep telegraphing/winking at the audience.


Kate Hamill, Debargo Sanyal, Zachary Fine, Tom O’ Keefe, Ryan Quinn, Brad Heberlee

On the plus side, Joey Parsons is an appealing and credible Amelia (one wants to shake her naïve shoulders), Tom O’Keefe delivers both serious and outrageous  characters with finesse (love the ventriloquist’s dummy!) and Manager (Narrator) Zachary Fine not only leads us through the fourth wall with just the right wry tenor, but becomes Matilda Crawley  (in wig and skirt) without resorting to mugging or screeching. Note: I have no issue with (even bearded) men playing women, just men playing women badly.

Early on, author/actor Kate Hamill plays a two-handed scene looking at the audience instead of Amelia, annoyingly taking us out of the action. Hamill then creates a Becky Sharp with less grace, charm or seductive attributes – virtually everything that enabled the character to rise – than insistence. In contrast, down-and-out Becky, is remarkably real. I remember how consistently splendid Hamill was as Marianne in the production of her Austen adaption and can only wonder.

There’s no percentage in retelling a story with which all of you are familiar. The play is periodically entertaining, but  chaotic (not freewheeling) in a style I find too often self-defeating.


Tom O’ Keefe, Brad Heberlee, Zachary Fine, Kate Hamill, Joey Parsons, Ryan Quinn, Debargo Sanyal

Alternately placing us in the period’s dark green interiors (Sandra Goldmark – Set) and a circus sideshow/Tivoli Gardens with evocative, striped rows of round lights (Seth Reiser – Design) offers creative context that works especially well with bankruptcy auctions and dark social comment. “This is Vanity Fair and it’s not a moral place,” the Manager reminds us.

Carmel Dean’s original and classic big top music adds apt atmosphere.
Costumes by Valerie Therese Bart are correct and evocative.

Photos by Russ Rowland
Opening: Kate Hamill, Tom O’Keefe

Vanity Fair
Adapted by Kate Hamill from the novel by William Thackery
Directed by Eric Tucker
The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
Through May 14, 2017