Readers who cherish Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice” can certainly enjoy Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation, now at the Cherry Lane, as long as they accept that the tone has been rewired from witty comedy of manners to boisterous farce.
The plot stays largely the same. Mr. Bennet’s four poor, unmarried daughters (the fifth, Kitty, has been downsized out of the story) will be kicked off his countryside estate once he dies. This is why Mrs. Bennet (a comically aggressive Nance Williamson ) is so desperate to marry them off, and why she is ecstatic to learn that a rich single man, a Mr. Bingley, has moved in next door.
Mr. Bingley, as it turns out, literally behaves like a puppy dog, as played by John Tufts, but that portrayal is Masterpiece Theater compared to Tufts’ other character, middle Bennet sister Mary. Bookish and pedantic in the novel, Mary in an awkward-fitting dress is so glaring, mumbly and resentful in the Primary Stage production that in a subsequent century she’d be instantly recognizable as Norman Bates. It becomes a running gag in Hamill’s adaptation that Mary continually shocks and bewilders her family, and their reaction to her is uncharacteristically harsh. At the ball to which Mr. Bingley has invited the Bennets, Mary keeps on coughing. This provokes the benign Mr. Bennet to proclaim: “Have consumption or be done with it!”
Then there is Mark Bedard, who gives a new definition of triple threat, portraying three insufferable characters who threaten the peace and well-being of the Bennet household — the snobbish Bennet cousin “Ms.” Bingley; the pompous local minister Mr. Collins, who proposes to sensible sister Lizzy; and Wickham, the gold-digging military officer who runs away with frivolous sister Lydia. As with all the actors, Bedard changes his costumes in full view of the audience; each time he finishes a scene as Wickham, he sits on a chair on the side of the stage and dramatically flicks off his epaulets.
In total, five of the eight cast members in Hamill’s version play multiple roles; three play multiple genders. All look like they’re having fun. As directed by Amanda Dehnert, Hamill’s stage version offers a fast-paced, winking entertainment.
But Hamill is also after something more, as she explains in a program note. She wants to explore “how people treat love as if it’s a very serious, high stakes game: with attendant rules, wins, and losses.” This may explain why the cast first comes out on stage singing the 1960’s pop song “The Game of Love,” accompanied by guitar and bells – and why sound designer Palmer Heffernan seems so enamored of bells of all sorts (from prize fighter bells to wedding bells)
Hamill also winds up doing justice to Austen in her portrayal of Lizzy, the protagonist of both novel and adaptation. The bickering between her and her love-hate suitor/antagonist Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Jason O’Connell, has its comic moments, but as the play progresses, the attraction between the two feels real. It helps that O’Connell can’t be pegged as a matinee idol, which for better or worse reinforces the notion that the love between them is neither infatuation nor avarice, but something deeper. (It surely also helps that O’Connell and Hamill in real life are live-in lovers.) For all the bells and whistling — and Mary — the last quarter of Kate Hamill’s play is as charming and touching as it is in Jane Austen’s novel.
Pride and Prejudice
Written by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Sceni design by John McDermott, costume design by Tracy Chirstensen, lighting dsign by Eric Southern, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, choreography by Ellenore Scott
Cast: Mark Bedard as “Wickham,” “Miss Bingley,” and “Mr. Collins;” Kimberly Chatterjee as “Lydia” and “Lady Catherine;” Kate Hamill as “Lizzy;” Jason O’Connell as “Mr. Darcy;” Amelia Pedlow as “Jane” and “Miss De Bourgh;” Chris Thorn as “Charlotte Lucas” and “Mr. Bennet;” John Tufts as “Bingley” and “Mary;” and Nance Williamson as “Mrs. Bennet.”
Running time: 2 ½ hours including an intermission
Pride and Prejudice is scheduled to run through January 6, 2018