Theater review: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at South Coast Repertory

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It is a truth universally acknowledged in showbiz, that a classic novel much beloved by the masses must be trotted out onstage whenever a box office bump is called for.

“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen’s perennial charmer, has once again been pressed into service, and a vocal contingent of Saturday’s matinee audience at South Coast Repertory seemed to be lapping up the tale of the marriageable Bennet daughters as though it were cookies and milk left by mom.

Only a killjoy would complain that the production is like a cartoon illustration of a tale that’s better read or languorously adapted for film or television than caricatured in the theater. So call me a killjoy because I can’t for the life of me understand how the familiar pleasures of Austen’s masterful plot can outweigh the obvious fact that the work isn’t meant to be shoe-horned into a makeshift play or presented in a style that favors hammy clarity over silence and subtlety.


The opening left many SCR patrons who were expecting a traditional airing of the story tremulous with anxiety. A punked-out girl (Claire Kaplan) with pink-streaked hair stomps around to blaring music in her bedroom until a woman, presumably her mother, enters and gives the girl something more subdued but no less absorbing to occupy her time — an e-reader version of “Pride and Prejudice,” eventually replaced by an actual book.

This frame quickly dissolves till all that’s left is the girl poking around the outskirts of scenes eager to find out what happens next in the saga. Fortunately, the presence of this onstage reader is only intermittently conspicuous and, to the relief of a few audience members who chirped their gratitude as soon as the locale transformed to comforting old England, she’s easy to ignore.

Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s adaptation crams far too many characters and subplots into their Theatrical Digest version. Efficiency is the goal of this vehicle, but a desire for comprehensiveness causes the caboose to drag.

Kyle Donnelly’s staging aims for maximum fluidity on Kate Edmunds’ mostly bare set enlivened with background projections and suffused with underscoring, but the dominant impression is one of book chapters whooshing by in a kind of speed-reading exercise. Gratitude for the rapid clip is inevitably overshadowed by the realization that the stock of episodes is nearly interminable. One ball scene leads to another and another and another after that. Austen’s prose is meant to be savored sentence by chiseled sentence, but this production leaves one longing for the option of skimming.

It’s a shame, really, because Dana Green’s Elizabeth Bennet, the novel’s level-headed protagonist, is excellent company. This unfussy performance, crisp, lucid and assertively intelligent, may be straightforward to a fault, but it’s the most satisfying element of a production that unfortunately surrounds its romantic center with the broadest of antics.

The problem isn’t Corey Brill’s Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s unlikely love interest, who lurches about the stage tall, brooding, snobby and vague, though never clownish. Nor is there anything missing in the affectionate bond that quickly develops between Rebecca Lawrence’s Jane, the eldest Bennet daughter, and Brian Hostenske’s Mr. Bingley, another attractive, well-born male character, decidedly more amiable than Darcy, though no less indistinct.

Jane Carr’s Mrs. Bennet, however, seems to be vying for the part of a chattering tea kettle in a Disney animated film. Carr, a crowd-pleasing pro, is just delivering the goods ordered by her director, who has transformed Jane and Elizabeth’s sisters into comic strip laughingstocks. (Paloma H. Young’s fanciful if uneven costume designs find objective correlatives for foolishness in frocks and bonnets.) Yes, Austen treats the girls with levity as well, but not to the extent of a kiddie pageant.

Of course next to Scott Drummond’s Mr. Collins, a “Saturday Night Live” parody of the unwanted suitor in stiff 19th century garb, silly Lydia Bennet (a squawking Amalia Fite), who runs off with the roguish Mr. Wickham (Michael A. Newcomer), doesn’t seem all that absurd. But mind you, this is a production that turns snooty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by the accomplished veteran Kandis Chappell, into a pre-Victorian Cruella de Vil.

Thankfully, Mr. Bennet, safe in Randy Oglesby’s hands, has retained his good common sense. Too bad he wasn’t available to provide counsel to the show’s creators. Jane Austen could use some protection from those who want to further popularize her. Mr. Bennet would be just the man to remind these industrious fans that the best way of paying homage to “Pride and Prejudice” is to read it and read it again. RELATED

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--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘Pride and Prejudice,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 Sundays. $20-$68. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes