While this is not a Bedlam production as was Hamill’s hugely successful stage version of Austen’s second published novel, Sense and Sensibility, director Amanda Dehnert has staged the play in their inimitable style for this co-production of Primary Stages and Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and has created a clever 19th century entertainment with a decidedly 21st century sensibility. The versatile Hamill has also given herself the plum role of Elizabeth Bennet, here known as Lizzy.
With eight actors playing 14 roles, part of the hilarity of this Pride and Prejudice is seeing the same actors return in different roles, with three of the men also amusingly assigned the role of ladies. John McDermott’s set is strewn with costumes, props and bells which are used at various points throughout the show. The play begins with a prologue in which the cast sing the 1964 song, “The Game of Love,” which becomes the theme of the evening, with games verbal, physical and psychological played throughout. Faithful to the novel and set in the early 1800’s, Hamill’s adaptation continually surprises with popular slogans, letters turned into dialogue and new conversations not penned by Austen.
In Hamill’s version, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (level-headed Chris Thorn and deliciously over-the-top Nance Williamson) have four daughters and as Mr. Bennet’s property is entailed (that is, must go to the nearest male heir) Mrs. Bennet is desperate to see her daughters make successful marriages or they will be left as impoverished old maids. However in this adaptation, articulate, educated second daughter Lizzy vows never to marry as taking her parents example she believes “the state is fundamentally flawed,” rather than seeking a husband with whom she is compatible.
The rest of Hamill’s version is faithful to the novel. Beautiful eldest sister Jane (a sweet Amelia Pedlow) meets the new bachelor in the neighborhood, the wealthy Charles Bingley (a completely foolish and simple John Tufts), and falls in love with him to the chagrin of his haughty sister Caroline (a disdainful Mark Bedard) and his even more arrogant and wealthier friend Mr. Darcy (Jason O’Connell) who is staying with them and objects to their vulgar, social climbing mother. After Lizzie is insulted by Mr. Darcy at the Longs’ ball and rejects knowing him outright, she finds herself in sympathy with Col. Wickham (a charmingly distinguished Bedard), a dashing officer with a somewhat shady reputation.
When their father’s heir, Mr. Collins (an eccentric and obnoxious Bedard), a pedantic and obtuse clergyman, comes to visit in order to pick a wife, Lizzy turns him down only to have her best friend, the plain Charlotte Lucas (a pragmatic and pessimistic Thorn) take up his offer instead. Flighty 14-year-old sister Lydia (saucy Kimberly Chatterjee) flirts with the soldiers in town while their father Mr. Bennet remains absent, reading his newspaper in his study. When Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, ironic and aristocratic, keep getting thrown together, their love-hate relationship blossoms until his impossible and imperious aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Chatterjee whose airs are chilling) makes it clear he is intended for her daughter Anne (a demented Pedlow). The games come to a head when Lydia elopes and it looks like Mr. Darcy’s negative feelings about the family are accurate. All ends happily in a final sequence that resembles the opening scene.
Hamill’s Lizzy is voluble, giddy and emotional making her more of a comic figure than in usual portrayals but it works well in the context of all of the other farcical elements. As Darcy, the tall solid O’Connell is suitably awkward, proper but quick to have a reposte to perceived barbs. Less glamorous that previous Darcys, he may actually be more believable. In private life, he is Hamill’s partner which may make a first for adaptations of Austen’s novel.
Except for Lizzy and Darcy, all of the other actors double demonstrating their versatility and range. Aside from his comic turn as Bingley, many of the scenes are stolen by Tufts’ Mary, the gangling, pedantic third Bennet sister who is as socially awkward as she is badly dressed. Continually sneaking up on people, Mary causes everyone to jump each time she enters the scene. Other notable pairings are Thorn’s laidback Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, Chatterjee’s contrasting Lydia and Lady Catherine, Pedlow’s Jane and Miss de Bourgh from opposite ends of the spectrum, Wililamson as the out-of-control Mrs. Bennet and then as the ultra-controlled butler for Lady Catherine, and Bedard’s triple feat as Mr. Bingley, Mr. Wickham and Mr. Collins. Part of the fun is watching the cast members change parts of Tracy Christensen’s costumes on stage and immediately return in their new guise. Palmer Hefferan’s sound design is one of the major elements in the production with chimes and bells suggesting that time is running out and these women’s biological clocks are running down, as well as music from Austen’s time as well as our own.
Faithful yet offering a modern sensibility, Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice is a tremendously engaging stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s great novel. Comic yet serious, its greatest strength is one does not have to know the novel to enjoy its humor and wisdom. Amanda Dehnert’s inventive production seemingly on a shoestring (but probably not) will impress you with both its wit and its tomfoolery. Led by Hamill and O’Connell, the cast create memorable portraits of the famed characters. While totally different from Bedlam’s production of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, this staging of Pride and Prejudice has been turned into a joyous evening of fun as well as comprehension of the ways of the human heart.
Pride and Prejudice (extended through January 6, 2018)
Primary Stages in co-production with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.primarystages.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission