Pride and Prejudice

Colin Firth is—and will always be—Mr. Darcy. But one does have to move beyond the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, albeit reluctantly. 

Michael Brusasco as Mr. Darcy and Kate Cook as Elizabeth Bennet (Photo: Danisha Crosby)

As fortune would have it, Round House’s production of Pride and Prejudice, under the assured direction of Blake Robison, provides excellent company in the form of Michael  Brusasco’s brooding, Byronic Mr. Darcy and Kate Cook’s crisp, headstrong Elizabeth Bennet. Along with a top-drawer supporting cast, this incarnation of Jane Austen’s Regency romance and comedy of manners will not make you forget Mr. Firth entirely—and why would you want to?—but it grants the audience ample and elegant pleasures.

The first contentment is visual, as scenic designer Narelle Sissons has fashioned an enchanting revolving wooden music box set—it even cranks to life via a golden key—that opens up to reveal the various drawing rooms and parlors, grand and modest, that dot the Austenian countryside. The sides and back of the stage are lined with written lines from Miss Austen’s own hand.

Devotees of Miss Austen’s 1813 novel will lap up this show like clotted cream, prudently reveling in the delight of seeing their beloved characters in the white-gloved flesh.  All five Bennet sisters are gloriously rendered—strong-minded Elizabeth, goodness personified Jane (a radiant Heather Haney), the bookworm Mary (Betsy Rosen), giddy Kitty (Alice Gibson) and boy-crazy Lydia (Laura Rocklyn)—along with their parents, the patient and gently witty Mr. Bennet (Rick Foucheux) and the obsessively marriage-minded Mrs. Bennet (Catherine Flye).

It is Mrs. Bennet’s terrier-like persistence to see all five girls favorably married that causes much of the trouble in Pride and Prejudice. She seemingly never tires of reminding the daughters that they are from compromised circumstances and that they are nothing without a husband—so much does she harp on this that you wonder if she is completely blind to their virtues and qualities. Her insistence can be grating or even insulting, but then you realize she is merely being practical since the choices for women in 19th century England were as narrow as the ribbons adorning their empire-waist gowns.

Kate Cook as Elizabeth Bennet, Heather Haney as Jane Bennet, Alice Gibson as Kitty Bennet, Laura Rocklyn as Lydia Bennet, and Betsy Rosen as Mary Bennet (Photo: Danisha Crosby)

As for the Bennet girls, they either bow to their mother’s will, as the younger Kitty and Lydia do, or patently tolerate her and become their own person, in the case of Elizabeth and Mary. Jane, it seems, is a prisoner of her own beauty, a prize patiently waiting to be claimed by a deserving gentleman.

That gentleman is the wealthy Charles Bingley (the engaging Clinton Brandhagen), who comes to Hertfordshire for the summer with his sister, Caroline (a sublime Susan Lynskey) who is as haughty as her brother is merry of soul, and their friend Mr. Darcy, a proud and condescending sort. Mrs. Bennet goes all a-twitter over Bingley, who appears to fall in love almost instantly with the angelic Jane. On the other hand, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy immediately take a strong dislike to one another, and seem determined to point out each other’s faults and topple each other off their high horses. This tension, combined with Mrs. Bennet’s meddling, causes all manners of complications.

Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s adaptation strives to capture the well-bred flavor of Miss Austen’s novel, but shoehorns in too many characters and subplots to the point where you feel like you are getting the vapors. There is also rather an overabundance of dancing scenes, and as charming as they may be, the repetition causes the show to drag. While prose, especially that of Miss Austen’s crystalline variety, is meant to be slowly enjoyed, theater needs to move and skim along. Unfortunately, this is not the case, especially in the second act, where ballroom scenes give way to one interminable parlor exchange after another until you can barely figure out whose house you’re in.

The production also favors the humorous aspects of the novel, which lightens the tone, especially in the scenes featuring Miss Lynskey as the delicately tart-tongued Caroline, who delivers seemingly innocuous remarks as if lolling a particularly wickedly rich sweet around in her mouth. Other comic relief comes courtesy of James Konicek, playing to the utmost a supercilious, malaprop-laden man of the cloth who pays an overbearing visit to the Bennet household and ends up cavalierly condescending to marry Elizabeth. (Reader, she does not marry him.)

Miss Flye also employs her comedic gifts as the dizzy force of nature Mrs. Bennet, although she does seem to slip into English pantomime buffoonery from time to time. Luckily, she is reined in by Mr. Foucheux’s cagey and winning portrayal of Mr. Bennet, who seems to have his daughters’ best interests at heart. The daughters, especially Miss Gibson’s Kitty and Miss Rocklyn’s Lydia, don’t fare as well, goosing up their antics to a shrill and flibberty-gibbet level.

This bent for laughs—Anne, a marriage prospect of Mr. Darcy’s, is rendered as a coughing corpse in a wheelchair like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration—keeps the show gay-hearted, but it times it seems at odds with the straightforward, keenly intelligent performances of Miss Cook and Mr. Brusasco. They gleam with level-headedness and honed passion. Coupled with the fine erotic charge they emit, the two bring substance and a strong moral core to a production that often unwisely emphasizes crowd-pleasing broadness and general silliness.

Pride and Prejudice runs thru Dec 31, 2010 at Round House Theatre,  4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD.

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen, adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan
Directed by Blake Robison
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard

Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

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