Pride and Prejudice at Rochester’s Geva Theatre (a review)

Emsworth has no prejudices to speak of. Yet when I hear that someone has tried to adapt one of my favorite works of literature for stage or screen, I expect a failure or an abomination, and I’m usually right.

Of course there are exceptions. I think of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1936 movie starring Katharine Hepburn), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1949 movie starring Broderick Crawford), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1980 musical play), and (surprisingly) The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, and 2003 movies starring Ian McKellen).

But the list of failures is much longer. Notorious among these are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1974 movie starring Robert Redford); Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990 movie starring Tom Hanks); and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1997 Broadway musical; it was our misfortune to attend a performance with the unspeakably awful Sebastian Bach in the title role).

So when I saw that Geva Theatre (Rochester, New York) was planning to adapt Jane Austen’s Pride andGeva Theatre Prejudice for the last show of its 2007-08 season, my expectations were low. I know and love the novel, and I didn’t feel any need to see it enacted — or worse yet, “reinterpreted” and mangled — on stage. Fortunately, the Geva show was a pleasant surprise.

Marge Betley (Geva’s resident dramaturg) and Mark Cuddy (Geva’s Artistic Director and director of this show) adapted the novel themselves, and they stuck fairly closely to Jane Austen’s story. They added no new characters or new scenes, and they used as much of Austen’s language they could. Prudently, they decided not to use a narrator.

These were smart choices, but the result was not compelling theater. For one thing, there were simply too many characters; familiar as I am with Pride and Prejudice, I still had trouble keeping track of some of them.

David Christopher Wells and Meghan Wolf in But all the Geva audience really wanted was to see their favorite Austen characters come to life on the stage. They were not disappointed, especially in Elizabeth Bennet, played by Meghan Wolf, a fetching brunette who gave us all the vivacity, wit, and intelligence that one could want in Austen’s heroine.

For the romantically inclined, Ms. Wolf and David Christopher Wells, who played Mr. Darcy, made a striking couple. And as director, Mr. Cuddy made sure that his audience would believe not only in Elizabeth’s improbable attraction to the ill-mannered Mr. Darcy, but also in her relationships with her sister Jane (Alyssa Rae), her best friend Charlotte Lucas (Vanessa LaFortune), and, most of all, her father. As played by Guy Paul, Mr. Bennet was a gratifyingly complex character.

Most of the actors did seem to appreciate that they were there for the purpose of entertaining us. Randy Rollison played the pompous, self-absorbed Mr. Collins to full comic effect, and Melanie Little was an audience favorite as the bookish, sanctimonious Mary Bennet.

But some cast members seemed merely to be reciting passages from the novel — most egregiously, Vanessa LaFortune as Charlotte Lucas. Moreover, to my mind, Carole Monferdini as Lady Catherine de Bourgh did not even come close to capturing the essence of Austen’s dragon lady, and her odd costume suggested one of the witches from The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, we were not able to understand the first lines of the play, shrilly delivered by Mrs. Bennet (Peggy Cosgrove) in an accent that continued to challenge us throughout the play.

Women have no monopoly on Jane Austen, but if this had been a movie, it would have been a chick flick. The women at Geva loved Mr. Darcy’s bungling courtship of Elizabeth Bennet. But some men were less appreciative. In the men’s room at intermission (which followed immediately after Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy’s proposal), one man was heard commenting to a friend, “She owes me big time for this.” His friend agreed: “I’m not saying I’m holding the gun to my mouth, but close.”

Incidentally, if one must adapt someone else’s novel, it seems to me that one is better off starting with a piece of literature that is merely second-rate, rather than a masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice. It worked with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1939 movie starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable), Edna Ferber’s Showboat (1927 musical), Stephen King’s The Shining (1980 movie also starring Nicholson), and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007 movie starring Tommy Lee Jones).

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