BWW Review: Delightful MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY at Round House
When every theater company feels compelled to do something Christmas-themed come December, it can lead to either overusing certain titles or creating fluffy trifles.
One great addition to regional theaters, though, is the literate and witty "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
This season alone, it's playing in Chicago, Milwaukee and San Francisco. But it's tough to imagine a better production of it than the one at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, part of the work's "rolling world premiere."
"Miss Bennet" takes the characters of Jane Austen's beloved "Pride and Prejudice" two years in the future, where Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are happily married, sister Jane is not just married but about to have a child. The youngest sister Lydia has a less happy coupling than the others, but at least she's married - such an important status in Austen world.
The new play focuses on the largely ignored, bookish single middle sister Mary, who barely has two lines in "Pride and Prejudice" but who is fully explored here as a kind of modern feminist, who keeps to her texts and the piano forte and has largely given up romantic possibilities.
But then she meets one Arthur de Bourgh, who is her equal in both his passion for books (they happen to be reading the same scientific text, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's "Philosophy Zoologique") and in his inability to handle social exchanges. This is a special problem for him since he's been recently been named Lord, inheriting a big house in addition to the title.
This is a matter of great excitement particularly for Lydia, who lavishes him with flirtations just to pass the time. But it's clear both Mary and Mr. Du Borguh recognize that there is something between them, if only their similarities to one another.
With the family all together for a Christmas Day reunion at Pemberley, the inevitable path to their romantic union amid the season's glow makes the piece as familiar -- and predictable -- as another Hallmark movie.
Yet there is definitely something more high minded here - with crisp, formal dialogue that doesn't seem out of line with that of Austen, characters that are true to their creator, who are yet willing to bring up solid points about a woman's role in a changing world. There's a brisk and confident repartee throughout that basks in the Austen-ness of it all that overcome the one or two bits of theatrical cliche - from mislaid love letters to an overly shocking announcement to explosively end act one.
Still, the quality of acting, with the sure accents, Daniel Conway's well-appointed set and Kendra Rai's beautiful costumes all combine to make it a pleasure from start to end. Is it too pretty, though? Director Eleanor Holdridge has the cast dance around to music between scenes, pausing in unison and going off again like dolls in a mechanical clock. It's one of the few detractions from a work that unlike most seasonal works this side of Dickens, seems more elevating than pandering to the Yuletide.
Katie Kleiger is just right as Mary - alluring behind her glasses, aware of her social lapses but ready to forcefully stand up for her intellectual passions. She's a handful and she knows it. Erin Weaver is well cast as Elizabeth Darcy, basking in her domestic bliss but eager to sew harmony among the sisters. Danny Gavin is pretty perfect as Mr. Darcy in all of his dashing and sometimes snobby qualities. Katie DeBuys suitably glows in her role as the pregnant Jane; Brandon McCoy adds humor to the work with his portrayal of her doting husband. And Miranda Rizzoli plays Lydia as very different from her sisters, but full of the bubbly zest the part requires.
As the visiting Mr. de Bourgh, William Vaughan is convincing in both his devotion to ideas and books and in his inability to comfortably interact with the world. Only Katheryn Tkel seems a little off from the group as a surprise visitor whose brash, unbridled haughtiness seems drawn from the Queen of Hearts more than a quiet chamber work.
Austenophiles will likely pick apart the work even as they celebrate it; not every character appears - the famous Bennet parents are gone together, as is a fifth sister, Kitty, of whom one character remarks late in the story, as if to the audience, "we've left her out of this story altogether!"
Still, this is such a solid addition to Yuletide stage fare, there is room for another variation even as "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" takes root as its own delight. And let's just say, if there ever were a Hallmark version of the play, it would instantly become its best holiday movie in ages.
Running time: About two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.
Photo credit: Katie Kleiger and William Vaughan. Photo by Grace Toulotte.
"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" continues through Dec. 18 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md. Tickets at 240-644-1100 or online.