“The Game of Love”
Imagine an if-only group of zanies like Jim Carrey, Amy Poehler, Robin Williams, Tina Fey, Kate McKinnon, and Susan Silverman locked in a theatrical storeroom loaded with miscellaneous pieces of furniture and 19th-century costumes. Then imagine telling them to come up with a show based on Jane Austen’s 1813 comedy of manners novel, Pride and Prejudice. There’s a good chance the result would be a lot like Kate Hamill’s exaggeratedly slapstick adaptation, now playing at the Cherry Lane; it might be funnier but I still doubt it would work.
|Pride and Prejudice company. Photo: James Leynse.|
The talented Hamill took much the same parodic approach to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility a couple of years ago. That production, directed for Bedlam by Eric Tucker, became an Off-Broadway hit that managed to find a perfect balance between spoofing Austen’s original and also respecting its intentions. Staged in an alley configuration with the audience just two or three rows deep on either side, it employed many of the same effects of devised theatre found here. Pride and Prejudice, though, only fitfully flares with the earlier work’s comic warmth and magic.
Director Amanda Dehnart’s Primary Stages production is presented proscenium style on the proscenium-less stage, with John McDermott’s set little more than a low platform surrounded by footlights. We see the stage’s actual brick walls, and, off the platform at the rear and sides, a miscellaneous assortment of props (including an ornate piano and an old-fashioned Victrola) and costume pieces. Lighting designer Eric Southern does a bang-up job of painting the set with color throughout.
Five of the eight actors play more than one role in the 14-character play; whoever’s not in a scene is usually visible sitting along the perimeters and clearly responding to the performance or changing into one of Tracy Christensen’s simplified period costumes. The three playing only a single role are Hamill as Lizzy, Jason O’Connell (so good in Sense and Sensibility and the solo show The Dork Knight) as Mr. Darcy, and Nance Williamson—who also serves as an unnamed, mustached, bell-ringing, announcement-making servant—as Mrs. Bennet. Three others play both men and women: Chris Thorn, as Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lewis; John Tufts, as Bingley and Mary Bennet; and Mark Bedard, as Mr. Collins, Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Wickham.
With a few exceptions, casting to type is out the window. And, while there are flickers of fine comic acting, and the actors are all expert at what they do, subtlety is sacrificed for pedal-to-the-metal hamminess. Hamill’s overacted Lizzy is the worst offender. Only Chris Thorn’s Mr. Bennet and Charlotte and Jason O’Connell’s Mr. Darcy manage to capture just the right mixture of broadness and refinement, with the others at various places on the comedic spectrum.
Infused with a game-like atmosphere (more “Beat the Clock” than “Jeopardy”) intended to reflect the gamesmanship and rules of wooing among Austen’s British gentry, the performance has an anything-for-a-laugh exuberance that often smothers the story in farcical foolery. That the principal romance between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy comes through nonetheless is a tribute both to the strength of Austen’s narrative and Act Two’s greater restraint; while still guilty of comedic overkill, some scenes are allowed to play themselves out minus most of the intrusive shtick.
After opening with an up-tempo dance (choreography by Ellenore Scott) to the sound of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “The Game of Love,” Hamill’s script, like a number of previous adaptations, follows Austen’s story faithfully enough.
Helen Jerome’s successful, more traditional 1935 version cut the number of Bennet sisters from five to three but Hamill goes with four, adding the moralizing, plain-looking Mary (John Tufts, in a purposely hideous dress) to her more lighthearted siblings, Elizabeth/Lizzy, Jane (Amelia Pedlow), and Lydia (Kimberly Chatterjee). The girls, of course, are the daughters of the long-suffering Mr. Bennet (Chris Thorn) and his fluttery spouse, Mrs. Bennet, preoccupied with finding suitably prosperous matches for her brood.
The Bennet sisters’ romantic entanglements involve those between the outspoken Lizzy and the aloofly arrogant Mr. Darcy, the beautiful Jane and the amiable Mr. Bingley (Tufts), and the teenage Lydia and the dashing Mr. Wickham (Bedard), who marries her only when bribed by Mr. Darcy to do so. Then there are the imperious, meddling Lady Catherine (Chatterjee), and her boorish protégé, the clergyman Mr. Collins (Bedard), whose marriage to Lizzy’s spinster friend Charlotte secures her financial wellbeing.
In place of a narrative replete with satire, wit, charm (both elegant and bumptious), and period manners, though, we get shrillness, mugging, pratfalls, funny sounds, whistles blowing, hand bells ringing (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” Mr. Bennet reminds the marriage-averse Lizzy), pop music, disco dance moves, double entendres, pants being pulled down, lovers wrestling amidst the audience, someone becoming entangled in two wooden chairs, someone else rushing down the aisle as one character so he can return to enter on stage as another, lots of tennis ball tossing, tissues being stuffed in watery nostrils, someone trying to sit on an elevated stool’s tiny seat, and a plethora of other farcical business that is too often gratingly distracting and sophomoric.
However well it’s done, and it is definitely well done, the appeal of all this japery fades quickly when you realize you’re going to be watching such juvenilia for over two and half hours. At least a half a dozen people decided after the first act that they got the idea and didn’t need to return for the second. On the other hand, Act Two, while still prone to excess, tones things down considerably and has some lovely, even serious moments, especially an extended conversation between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, and a pretty garden scene adorned with artificial flowers.
I’m not too proud to say that I remain prejudiced in favor of Hamill’s previous Austen outing, which, as its title says, revealed far more sense and sensibility than her current one.
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through January 6, 2018