Theatergoers familiar with Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice may or may not be pleased by actor-adapter Kate Hamill’s new stage version. Some may wonder if it derives from a different source — possibly one the great novelist wrote while perusing, or anticipating, the works of Monty Python. Or perhaps she wrote it while listening to the music of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, whose fondness for noisy percussive effects infuses the production of Hamill’s text, under Amanda Dehnert’s direction, currently being presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Hamill, who also essays the central role of Lizzie Bennett, has not divulged any variant source for her work, but admirers of Austen’s original should be forewarned not to bring any conventional expectations with them to this Pride and Prejudice. If Hamill’s re-envisioning discomfits them, well, Austen’s novels have survived the predations of zombies and sea monsters, MGM and Masterpiece Theatre, so we can safely assume they will survive the free-for-all at the Cherry Lane, too.
I can’t predict how entertaining any audience member will find the Hamillized Pride and Prejudice. My guest at the press performance was a friend of largely sedate and conservative tastes, who roared with laughter during large segments of the show. I, on the other hand, rarely cracked a smile, and I think I only laughed out loud twice. None of which kept me from admiring the skill with which the whole performance is executed: An enormous amount of effort has gone into playing nearly every moment exactly as Jane Austen would not have wished to see it done, which surely ranks as an achievement of some kind. On the other hand, Austen had a famously glorious sense of humor; the short works that she wrote in adolescence, in a spirit of high travesty, are less raucous than this Pride and Prejudice but not so far from it in spirit, especially the spoof epistolary novel with the intentionally misspelled title Love & Freindship. (It contains the classic sentence, “We fainted alternately on a sofa.”)
Still, for all her independence of mind and her elegantly sly wit, Austen was at heart a pious and morally conventional Englishwoman of her time. Her family tree is heavy with clergymen and naval officers, in an era when Britain really ruled the waves, and her passionate belief that men should respect women as equals and individuals with minds of their own did not in any way make her a radical or a feminist crusader on the order of Mary Wollstonecraft or Voltairine de Cleyre. The wholesale subversion of society, or of a literary work, would not have been her idea of a good time.
And subversion, postmodern-style, of most prior norms of either standard play production or Austenian behavior is this Pride and Prejudice’s stock in trade. The story is largely the one Austen tells, somewhat compressed: Mrs. Bennett, keeping up appearances on a limited income that will cease with her soft-spoken husband’s death, frets over the marital prospects of her four daughters (five in the original), particularly bright, outspoken Elizabeth (called Lizzie here). Pretty Jane, Lizzie’s elder sister, catches the eye of a rich visitor, Mr. Bingley; his priggish friend Darcy warns him off the unequal match, but falls himself, against his will, for Lizzie’s more intellectual charms. Darcy’s resistance to Lizzie, and hers to him, are both broken when outside events intervene: A younger Bennett daughter runs off with a cad known to Darcy; then the latter’s domineering, ultra-snobbish aunt attempts to do for him what he tried to do for Bingley. Mutual confession of faults, reconciliation, and marriage follow.
A favorite with Austen’s own family while she worked on it, the story has delighted the world ever since, spawning countless book editions, multiple film and TV versions, and, inevitably, a Broadway musical (First Impressions, 1959, with Hermione Gingold as Mrs. Bennett, Polly Bergen as Elizabeth, and Farley Granger as Darcy). Its stage career began in the early Thirties with competing adaptations by Helen Jerome and A. A. Milne (Jerome won because Milne, ever the gentleman, withdrew his); countless others have followed.
Hamill’s version follows the story in a freewheeling burlesque manner, undermining it with gags, slapstick, Eighties-style dance breaks, and razzmatazz sound effects. Dehnert’s eight-person cast doubles and triples, blind to gender, generation, size, and shape. Chris Thorn, tall and hulking, makes a likable Mr. Bennet but seems grotesque, especially when next to Hamill’s pertly petite Lizzie, as an equally tall and hulking Charlotte Lucas. Two actors snatch a triumph, within the limits of the show’s screw-loose style, from their double roles: Mark Bedard switches between a smooth, creepily sincere Wickham and a stylized, stammering caricature, straight out of a Rowlandson cartoon, as Lizzie’s clergyman suitor, Mr. Collins. And appealing John Tufts shifts back and forth even more effectively from a skittery, manic Bingley to a drolly melancholic Mary Bennett.
But beyond these two exceptional gems, the performance, though always skillful, depends entirely on your willingness to enjoy something that hews to Jane Austen’s narrative while consistently violating her manner, her spirit, and her tone. Hamill’s script has the merit of underlining points in the novel that carry extra resonance today but that contemporary readers often miss in the placid flow of Austen’s prose, like the runaway Lydia’s age (fourteen) and Lizzie’s attraction to Wickham. But these points sit in isolation on a stage so full of exaggeration and shtick that it robs them of context, just as it robs the Lizzie-Darcy romance of charm. The broad comic atmosphere sets the house laughing, but the laughter flags noticeably in the second act (which, significantly, has little of either Mary or Bingley in it). The excess of goofball behavior has not left sufficient room for Austen to cast her spell, and without her spell, what was the point of adapting her novel? Nobody dislikes it enough to need a travesty of it. To burlesque it gently, out of love, as the Bedlam troupe did last year with Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, would be a viable approach. In Pride and Prejudice, the company’s love for the work, though not entirely absent, has been displaced by other concerns, like making noise and having fun. Noise and fun are all very well, but, as Jane knew, love lasts longer. When she wrote her great novels, she put her youthful high jinks aside.