Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
I don't mind if people in early 19th century garb strike a pose and expound in an artful, drawing-room manner for a full paragraph, and then someone (perhaps the same person) punctures all that pre-Victorian stuff with a modern-sounding punchline. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon extruded this commodity in 2016, after several other popular reworkings of the timeless classic Pride and Prejudice, and here they succeed in their own comic formula from start to finish.
Incidentally, there is another "Christmas At Pemberley," a novel you can grab on Amazon from 2011, but it appears to be unrelated to this, or any other Bennet-family scenario, with or without zombies. This play, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, guarantees a good laugh just about every 90 seconds. And with director Jenn Thompson, it's solid and steady and may even boast a few glimmers of genius, widely interspersed within its 2:15 hour running time.
Another big plus: it's about ten times better than the Rep's Sense and Sensibility from 2013. Whereas this month's Austenalia may seem inauthentic in the use of a few of its most important characters, at least it's not a big fake mess, to boot. I don't so much mind that the wonderful old characters from Pride and Prejudice are recycled here, but I do mind when some of them bear little resemblance to the originals.
Philosophically, it's a worthy successor to the original. We don't think of Jane Austen's source novel as being part of the whole Age of Enlightenment, but we really should. A later novel, "Northanger Abbey," seems straight out of the modern, but related, skeptical movement itself. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, just at the fringe of a century that gave us both the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. In a less cataclysmic context, Ms. Austen's romantic injustices are also dealt with in a very direct and exceedingly rational manner.
In this play, set at Christmas-time two years later, the new authors focus on the next marriageable Bennet girl, the 100% serious Mary, who here seems destined to land a bachelor even more wealthy than Mr. Darcy or Mr. Bingley. And, with autodidact Mary at the center, the results are even more strongly "enlightened": with talk of predestination and Lamarckism and other scientific matters of the day, thanks to Justine Salata as the stoic and insatiably studious young woman. So, points to the playwrights for further developing that psychological atmosphere.
But we run into a bit of trouble with the free-thinking, idealistic heroine of Pride and Prejudice, the second-eldest daughter, Elizabeth. In the two years since she's snagged Mr. Darcy, she's apparently matriculated straight from maidenhead to matron, and into a kind of light-comedy purgatory. She is well and dutifully played here by Harveen Sandhu, albeit with some uncharacteristic swanning and swooning about. Kim Wong is very charming as the eldest and most classically beautiful sister, Jane (Ms. Wong is fresh off a much more challenging role, of Ophelia in last month's Hamlet on the same Browning Mainstage). There were five sisters in the original novel, though fourth daughter Kitty is away in London in this tale.
To explain Elizabeth's newer, more retiring nature, it may simply be that the role of an ingénue is often to be "likably unlikable," until she can reconcile with the world and find a mate. "Love," as the comedienne Anna Russell used to say, "certainly took the ginger out of her!" But it's Mary's turn now, and she is drone-like and bookishly unaware, when in stumbles the similarly clueless young Arthur de Bourgh. He's a distant cousin (and heir) to Pride and Prejudice's horrible ogre, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has died and left him her Rosings Park estate, thanks to Austen's bête noire, the dreaded "entailment." (His own father, and an uncle, left him their fortunes, and a title.)
But Arthur is every bit as humble and charming as Lady Catherine was high and mighty, and played with sublime awkwardness by Miles G. Jackson. So, problem solved: two social incompetents will gradually make it to the altar together, with a lot of laughs along the way. It's like "The Big Bang Theory" with empire dresses for the women, and terrific Regency coats for the men, thanks to costumer David Toser and his team.
We also get a remarkably charming Darcy and Bingley in Rhett Guter and Peterson Townsend, respectively, thrown in for manly counsel to the clueless Lord Arthur, and they seem impossibly suave by comparison. Everything would be smooth sailing, were it not for the unexpected arrival of Lady Catherine's daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh, now all grown up, right on the brink of intermission.
As Lady Anne, Victoria Frings provides the most interesting performance on stage (partly because this version of Anne de Bourgh actually has what we used to call a "dramatic arc"). The problem is that in the intervening two years, Anne has somehow transmogrified from being a deeply repressed, psychologically smothered victim of Lady Catherine into a ghastly, towering, mature harridan herself. There is no backstory or supporting evidence to allow for this galaxy-tilting alteration of character, thrust into the script by playwrights Gunderson and Melcon as their primary (and to me, inexplicable) dramatic obstacle.
But it gives Anne a starting place, however false and arbitrary that may be. And she, and Mary and Arthur, and even the impetuous youngest sister Lydia (giddy Austen Danielle Bohmer), each manage to reason their way toward enlightenment, in a way that's truly, unexpectedly powerful at the end. "Rich people live in a bubble," the authors seem to say; and popping it from the inside may be the least painful way of healing the world in a pre-Industrial, pre-Dickensian time.
Like the scandalously pagan Christmas tree on stage, it is all a convention, and a mildly diverting exercise, to add some holiday color to both Austen and the birth of Jesus too. And perhaps, like Christmas music at the mall, life would be all too serious without it.
Through December 24, 2017 at the Loretto-Hilton theater building, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University in St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in order of appearance)