Bedlam’s 2014 production of Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamil from the novel by Jane Austen, and directed by Eric Tucker, set the bar so high for cleverness, originality and wit that we have come to expect this level of expectation from all of their future offerings. Unfortunately, their stage version of Austen’s last novel Persuasion, a tale of mature love and second chances by first time playwright Sarah Rose Kearns, does not work as well. Among the problems are so much doubling and tripling that it becomes difficult to keep the characters separate and a lack of humor and irony that was inherent in the original material. Tucker seems to have forgotten that this should be a comedy of manners.
Anne Elliot is the middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, an extravagant, supercilious baronet almost exclusively devoted to outward appearance and rank. Anne is taken for granted by her father, and her older sister Elizabeth and her married sister Mary are given pride of place. Mary, married to Charles Musgrove, heir to the respected local squire, puts on the same airs as her father, though she is a terrible hypochondriac. Eight years before the story begins back in 1806, Anne became engaged to Frederick Wentworth, an undistinguished naval officer, but she was persuaded by her father, her sisters and her godmother Lady Russell to break it off as Wentworth was poor and socially beneath them at that time.
Now eight years later, the Elliots have to rent out their ancestral home, Kellynch Hall, due to the profligacy of Sir Walter, and their new tenant is Admiral Croft and his wife Sophie. Ironically, her brother is now Captain Wentworth, who has become rich and distinguished in the recently ended wars. Having not heard from him all these years Anne expects little of their meeting again and she is not disappointed. Wentworth makes his lack of interest clear when he is overheard saying that the 27-year-old Anne is so altered he would not have known her.
On a trip to the seaside resort of Lyme Regis with Mary and Charles, his two sisters Louisa and Henrietta, and Captain Wentworth to visit the family of Wentworth’s friend Admiral Harville, it appears that Wentworth favors Louisa. Anne joins her father and sister in their new home in Bath after a visit to Lady Russell, and meets her widowed cousin William Elliot, his father’s heir who up to now has avoided meeting them. William makes a play for Anne and it is assumed that they will marry. Then Captain Wentworth arrives in Bath and appears jealous of William. Henrietta arrives with news of her family as does Admiral Harville and his wife. Events transpire to throw Anne and Wentworth together and various engagements are finally announced making for a series of happy endings.
The most important line in the story is Mary’s statement to Anne after meeting Captain Wentworth for the first time that “Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, and he said that you were so altered, he should not have known you.” However, not only is this key line line thrown away so that it makes little impact, but Arielle Yoder as Anne is so animated throughout as to vitiate this information of her change after eight years. On the other hand, Rajesh Bose’s Captain Wentworth is so emotional at all times that one doubts he would have let Anne break off the engagement years before. Playwright Kearns’ only original addition to the story is a prologue in which we see Anne and Wentworth get engaged eight years before, but this is awkwardly repeated so many times as to make it rather foolish.
Among other interpretations which are deficient are Annabel Capper’s overbearing Lady Russell and Nandita Shenoy’s weak Elizabeth. Aside from playing Sir Walter’s too young lawyer, Mr. Shepherd, Yonatan Gebeyehu plays their third cousin Lady Dalrymple in so over-the-top fashion as to make her unnecessarily a comic character. Caroline Grogan’s doubling as Mrs. Clay, Elizabeth’s bosom companion, and Henriette Musgrove makes it difficult to know which is which.
We see a lot less of Randolph Curtis Rand’s egotistical and foppish Sir Walter than we should as he also plays three other characters. Instead of being the sort of passive woman who always gets others to do for her, Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy’s Mary Musgrove instead is a loud, vulgar person who pushes everyone around to get her way. Jamie Smithson’s appearance as Cousin William Elliot after earlier appearing as Charles Musgrove is also confusing.
The physical production is also not up to expectations. John McDermott’s scenic design, devoid of atmosphere and ambiance, is rather ugly and garish where his past Bedlam productions such as Sense and Sensibility and Pygmalion were ingenious and clever. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s costumes are rather shabby, which misses the point that these may be superficial and shallow people but they are at all times elegant. Some meta-theatrical scenes on microphones (sound design by Jane Shaw) are gimmicky and out of place, breaking the 19th century context that has been established. Eric Tucker’s direction which in the past has dazzled with inventiveness seems to have lost its edge.
Bedlam’s Persuasion (though October 31, 2021)
The Connelly Theatre, 220 East Fourth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-833-4Bedlam or visit http://www.bedlam.org/persuasion/
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission