BWW Review: Forget Scrooge and George Bailey; MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY at American Stage is the Holiday Play We Need
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." --Austen's famous first line of Pride and Prejudice
Last we heard in Jane Austen's most famous and endearing novel, Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, and they will happily become man and wife and live in Pemberley, even though their nuptials at first mortify Miss Bingley. Mr. Bingley and Elizabeth's sister, Jane, also tie the knot and move to a county near Longbourn. The irresponsible Lydia is forced to ask Elizabeth for financial help, and she and Wickham wind up not necessarily as a happy couple. And Mary, poor unmarried Mary, doesn't really change. She remains somewhat dour and winds up staying at Longbourn. The last line of the novel, alluding to Mrs. Bennet's brother, Mr. Gardiner, goes like this: "With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them, and they were both sensible of the warmest gratitude towards persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them."
And thus ends Austen's masterwork, a novel so popular that it is shocking that the author earned less with it than with her other works due to not having a royalty arrangement with it. But playwright Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have reimagined Austen's world by creating a sweet, Christmas-themed sequel entitled MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY, the Bay Area premiere of a holiday confection that is hard to resist.
Given a first-class treatment at American Stage, this production thrusts us back into Austen Land immediately, re-creating some of the most famous characters in literature. It's a dream of sorts, far more successful than what Alexandra Ripley did with Scarlett, the failed reimagined sequel to Gone with the Wind. Part of the success here is that the playwrights capture a mere moment, a Christmastime get-together two years after the action of the novel, rather than trying to recreate an exact, full-length continuation of the original, which would be a disaster. And it's perfect for the season. In a world inundated with theatrical retellings featuring Scrooge or George Bailey, it's a relief to hang with the Bennets and Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.
The performances are all strong, with three key cast members standing out. Top of them all is Jenny Lester as the bespectacled Mary Bennet, the heroine of this work (though more of a side character in the novel). For anyone who saw Lester in the wonderful Bad Jews last summer, her work here will come as a shock. Talk about versatility! It looks like two completely different actresses with two very different personalities--the insufferable (but ultimately correct) Millennial in Bad Jews and the bookworm, unmarried, musical Mary. Her performance hits all the right notes here, quite literally.
As her potential suitor, the awkward Arthur de Bourgh, John Odsess-Rubin is hilarious. With his constant tripping or near-tripping over the furniture (head over heels), and his slight stammer, he is a Nerd with a capital N. But he's the real hero in this story, sort of a geeky jester-prince in the Austen universe. His courtship of Mary reminded me of a Regency Era Big Bang Theory--a 19th Century Sheldon Cooper romancing Amy Fowler (they even look similar).
Is there anything Britt Michael Gordon cannot do? Having seen him in The Pitman Painters, Good People, Peter and the Starcatcher and as a particularly frightening John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, I have always been impressed with his work. But here, he is Mr. Darcy, right down to his stance with his hand resting on his side. He immediately pushes us back in time two centuries into the world of Jane Austen, and I cannot imagine a better Darcy (no, not even Colin Firth). It's splendid work.
Brooke Tyler Benson is a lively Elizabeth, infusing each scene with energy and nuptial joy. Sadie Lockhart is likable and beautiful as the now-pregnant Jane (married to Charles Bingley, played by the entertaining and sometimes over-the-top Lucas Calzada). Courtney Anne McLaren is a bolt of energy as the rather virtueless Lydia, but Lydia is my least favorite character anyway, so it's an uphill battle for Ms. McLaren. And Katie Cunningham completes the cast as a sort of villain of the show, Anne de Bourgh. Cunningham's Anne is cunning and brazen, throwing the yuletide festivities into a tizzy with her announcement at the end of Act 1, and the actress plays it for all its worth.
There is not a missed note in Stephanie Gularte's direction. The show runs at a perfect pace, and the between-the-scenes musical episodes featuring the servants balletically changing the set is a nice touch.
Steven K. Mitchell's set is extraordinary, almost opulent, including parquet floors and a carved horse-head chair. It rightly captured the "neither formal, nor falsely adorned" house of Pemberley. One of the key set pieces is a large undecorated Christmas tree that stands center stage and that gets decorated with candles as the show goes on. The tree is brought up quite a bit in conversation as an oddity, as this was a new custom brought from Germany. But the Darcy household is way, way ahead of their time, groundbreaking in their own right, as the first recorded Christmas trees in English households didn't become a "thing" until the 1830's. Although this is not quite an anachronism here, history records Christmas trees in England a decade and a half after the action of MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY, and they didn't become popular until Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, set one up in Windsor Castle in 1841. (As for the Christmas tree in American households, it became a seasonal staple after an 1848 drawing of the Windsor Castle Christmas tree was reproduced in the magazine Godey's Lady's Book, published in Philadelphia in 1850; interestingly, the illustration was made to look more American by erasing the Queen's crown and the Prince's mustache.)
There is falling snow throughout the play, as seen through the windows (brilliant lighting by Joseph P. Oshry). There's a moment where Mary peers out the window at the snowy outside world, and the lighting is so exquisite, its looks like a Regency Era portrait sprung to life. Trish Kelley's costumes are fine for the most part, period appropriate, although not as wow-worthy as one might like.
Sometimes the plot becomes a bit farcical, making the following line of Mary's quite ironic: "Oh, I have always detested farce." There is a moment with letters featuring Mary, Arthur and Lydia that made me wonder if we weren't far away from a Three's Company episode as written by the great Ms. Austen.
MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY is nothing more than escapist fare, mere fluff, but that's what's so right about it. It's not there to change the world or to cure the common cold; it's there to entertain and to tell a romantic holiday tale that caused the audience to adoringly erupt in verbal swoons more than once during the performance that I attended. With the current world gone crazy and government shutdowns in the news, it's fun to slide back in time to the Regency Era of England and hang with the likes of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth and her family. This is one overstuffed Christmas stocking that we really need now.
MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY at American Stage runs through December 30th.