Sunday, April 2, 2017

165. Review: VANITY FAIR (seen March 31, 2017)

"They Stayed Too Long at The Fair"

The theatrical lightning that recently illuminated Kate Hamill’s sparkling adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for Off-Broadway’s Bedlam company has not struck twice for Vanity Fair, her latest project, now at the Pearl Theatre. Eric Tucker, the cleverly imaginative director, who made the Austen production one of New York’s brightest gems, uses similarly illusion-busting hijinks for Hamill’s ambitious rendering of William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical, 67-chapter, British novel, published in 1848. It doesn’t take 10 minutes, though, before you realize it’s not working and that you still have a lot to sit through before its two hours and 45 minutes are up.

Brad Heberlee, Tom O'Keefe. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Vanity Fair would seem to be a perfect instrument on which to play a symphony of theatrical notes. Set in Britain and on the Continent during the Napoleonic wars, the comically slanted novel is narrated by a puppet master, the Manager, who displays a broad panoply of flawed characters on his literary stage as he peeks through the curtain at the eponymous fair—a metaphorical playground for man’s sinful attachments. Moreover, his eventful tale is filled with theatrical and musical references. There’s even a game of charades.
Brad Heberlee, Joey Parsons, Kate Hamill, Tom O'Keefe. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Hamill uses the Manager (Zachary Fine) as an observing presence, dressed in present-day clothes, introducing the story and interpolating sardonic commentary; he also steps into the action to play the aged, flatulent Aunt Matilda Crawley and the saturnine roué, the Marquis de Steyne
Joey Parsons, Tom O'Keefe, Ryan Quinn, Kate Hamill, Zachary Fin, Debargo Sanyal. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Unlike Sense and Sensibility, which was performed alley style, with the audience on two sides of a long space, Vanity Fair is done on a wide proscenium stage over which hangs an oval track for a red velvet curtain pulled this way and that from scene to scene. Sandra Goldmark’s open, flexible design uses a few pieces of furniture, including a chesterfield armchair, a chaise longue on wheels, and a piano. It places numerous tiny bulbs along the walls that Seth Reiser’s busy lighting design configures into various patterns.
Kate Hamill, Debargo Sanyal, Zachary Fine, Tom O'Keee, Ryan Quinn, Brad Heberlee. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Hamill and Joey Parsons—both bright presences—play, respectively, the conniving, lying, self-reliant Becky Sharp, raised on charity, and her well-off, naïve, weak-willed, finishing-school friend, Amelia Sedley. The five male actors handle multiple roles, sometimes donning their costumes and silly wigs as the audience watches. Apart from the Manager’s, which adds period touches when needed, Valérie Thérèse Bart's eye-catching costumes are all in early 19th-century mode.
Brad Heberlee, Zachary Fine, Kate Hamill, Debargo Sanyal, Tom O'Keefe. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Like Sense and Sensibility, this is theatre having fun with itself as a game people play, using familiar props in unfamiliar ways, and openly sharing its performance with the audience. Finished with a stomach pillow to simulate pregnancy? Whip it off and toss it away. Time for a scene transition? Boogie to a bit of upbeat dance music. Holding a prop baby when a scene ends? Drop it with a bang. This works in limited amounts but, over time, it becomes a self-defeating device that deflates interest in the material it's meant to serve.
Ryan Quinn, Kate Hamill, Tom O'Keefe, Debarga Sanyal, Joey Parsons. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Some of the business is farcically exaggerated—like old lady Crawley’s farting scene—and some of it realistically emotional. The acting also jumps from hambone excess to simple honesty, depending on the mood. And, as so common in this style of theatre, the men, regardless of beards and mustaches, often play female roles, a cliched trope that finds humor in feminine mincing, mewing, and mugging. More than enough instances are on view, most egregiously Debargo Sanyal's portrayal of Briggs, Aunt Crawley's maid. 
Joey Parsons, Kate Hamill. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The problem with this theatre for theatre’s sake style is that, unless great care is taken, the focus shifts from the story and characters—which, after all, is the point of a 19th-century novel—to the performers and their performance. Which happens here as creative ingenuity takes precedence over Thackeray’s book.
Debargo Sanyal, Tom O'Keefe, Ryan Quinn, Kate Hamill, Joey Parsons, Brad Heberlee. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Vanity Fair’s story, about how Becky Sharp, a manipulative minx from lower-class origins (father a failed painter, mother an opera dancer), uses her wiles to marry into wealth and gain both money and social status, although not without considerable setbacks. Inheritances, disinheritances, births, deaths, bankruptcies, marriages, affairs, debts, auctions, war, seductions, illnesses, gambling, betrayals and the like engulf Becky and her acquaintances as the years pass. Of course, Hamill had to make tough choices about what to keep and what to cut; some may object, for instance, to the omission of everyone's ultimate fate.
Brad Heberlee, Kate Hamill, Ryan Quinn, Joey Parsons. Photo: Russ Rowland.
An assortment of men pass through the women's lives, including Rawdon Crawley (Tom O’Keefe), the handsome, gambling, military officer; Jos Sedley (Brad Heberlee), Amelia’s fat, bumbling brother, in love with Becky; George Osborne (Sanyal), the narcissistic prig who marries Amelia; Sir Pitt Crawley (Heberlee), the old lecher who craves Becky; Pitt Crawley (Sanyal), Rawdon's simpering, self-loving brother; William Dobbins (Ryan Quinn), who foolishly persists in loving Amelie, come what may; and, as already noted, the designing Marquis de Steyne, who plies Becky with jewels and money.
Debargo Sanyal, Joey Parsons, Kate Hamill, Ryan Quinn, Tom O'Keefe. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The cast gives its all and shows good humor, versatility, and intelligence but the demands of making their characters engagingly real while also subjecting them to so many audience-distancing japeries prove insuperable. It's a shame, given such a colorful rogues’ gallery of selfish, hypocritical, miserly, innocuous, vain, and otherwise tainted characters.
Tom O'Keefe, Brad Heberlee, Zachary Fine, Kate Hamill, Joey Parsons, Ryan Quinn, Debargo Sanyal. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Vanity Fair's 700 pages have been made into many movies and TV miniseries, each with its delights and drawbacks. There are also earlier stage versions, most recently Declan Donnellan's mildly reviewed one for Britain's Cheek by Jowl Theatre, which also thought it funny to have males play females. But as one critic wrote of that attempt, and as the Pearl's version confirms, Thackeray's novel, no matter how approached, is simply "unstageable." 


Pearl Theatre
555 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 30