Austen, Done Admirably

Perhaps it's just something in the air, but for reasons uncertain, Jane Austen, dead lo these 179 years, has suddenly become the author of the moment. Two major movies based on her novels -- Roger Mitchell's Persuasion and Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility -- have been in theaters recently, and a BBC/A&E co-production of Pride and Prejudice took up six hours of prime TV time only a few weeks back. Now, Main Street Theater's Rebecca Greene Udden has chosen to weigh in with her own adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and while, at a mostly brisk three hours, it clocks in at about half the length of its televised counterpart, it still does Austen justice. Udden's adaptation may be a bit long on whimsy and short on trenchancy, and the direction may be so sportive that it sometimes forgets what the shenanigans are all about, but Main Street's Pride and Prejudice ends up a charming, spiffy entertainment.

The beginning of Austen's novel is one of the most famously droll phrases in English literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Unfortunately, Main Street Theater chooses to downplay the keenness behind this insight, though Udden does have the good sense to let Austen's words speak for themselves. Virtually all of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel, and more or less in chronological order; from page to stage, the characters remain archly articulate and comically pungent.

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, a comedy of manners, matrimony, morality and -- such an ugly word -- money. Zeroing in on what's provincial in the privileged, it centers on the upwardly mobile Bennet family and their admirers and detractors. Mrs. Bennet has one goal in life -- to find worthy husbands for her five daughters: two twits, one bookworm, sweet Jane and Elizabeth, the play's insightful heroine. Elizabeth's abilities of discernment notwithstanding, she's quick to listen to a cad named Mr. Wickham slander another of her suitors, Mr. Darcy, a well-bred gentleman so correct that he seems unforgivably arrogant. As suitors declare themselves, or are volunteered, and as first impressions give way to lasting ones, Elizabeth comes to realize the prejudice with which she's viewed Mr. Darcy. How Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy end up is as obvious as it is delicious.

But Austen's ultimate worth is not her plot; it's her authorial voice, and it's here that Udden's adaptation feels flimsy, having none of the crystalline knowingness that is the book's raison d'étre. For all the fun Austen had with her depictions, she was quite scathing, rebuking virtually everyone for something. By omitting commentary, the stage version lacks the very substance Austen was interested in. The play is just what it says: play.

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Still, it's a fine play. Even though confined to a particular community, Austen's narrative is expansive, and Udden does a serviceable job of including the many machinations among more than a dozen characters. We know who does and doesn't want to marry whom, and what everybody thinks, and why we should laugh. By making good, if inconsistent, use of letters, Udden via Austen choicely defines a number of the characters, even secondary ones such as the unctuously supercilious sycophant Mr. Collins, a vicar with the most ungodly of aspirations.

Other characters, though, are unaccountably sketchy. Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy are, as Austen wrote them, mysterious polar opposites and not at all what they seem, but in Udden's transcription, neither are developed enough. What's more, characters are ushered off-stage simply so that others can be introduced, too much happens via summation, and while Jane's travails are given short shrift, the scandal that one of the twits drags the family into is played for too many laughs. And Elizabeth gets a bit lost in all the shuffle.

These flaws prevent the play from achieving significance, but they don't prevent it from being highly amusing. What this Pride and Prejudice is is a theatrical cousin to Clueless, Amy Heckerling's good-time film Hollywoodization of Austen's Emma, in which Alicia Silverstone starred as the Austen beauty transplanted to Beverly Hills High. Under director Claire Hart-Palumbo's light comic touch, the less levelheaded Bennet women go gaga at the mere mention of men. The twits are a whirlwind of titters, oohs and whispers. Going broad to great effect, Hart-Palumbo creates sustained reaction shots, such as when Elizabeth sits and stews after Mr. Darcy says that she's "tolerably handsome."

The lesser of Hart-Palumbo's difficulties -- she has trouble with the dance sequences, and some of the readings of the letters are cumbersome -- are forgivable. Her bigger oversights mirror Udden's. Mr. Darcy's revelation that Elizabeth has caught his eye and Elizabeth's realization that she doesn't really know herself because her of "vanity" aren't as tumultuous as they should be. The time frame is sometimes hard to follow, and more than once the wrong cast members carry things during awkward scene changes. Still, not even erratic lighting, sound and hair designs (the women are done up right, down to the very last curl, but genteel men would not be in need of the trims that they are here) get in the way of Hart-Palumbo's literate merriment.

That the sprawling cast delivers Austen's sophisticated syntax with uniform coherence offsets the fluctuations in accents that keep cropping up. Every bit the "accomplished woman" the text calls her, Penny Alfrey as Elizabeth displays an agreeable smile, a lively spirit and a well-placed intelligence, all the while suggesting that she has a thing or two to learn. As written, Mr. Darcy is at first, if not exactly likable, then certainly honorable for being forthright; by the end, he's embraced for his very reputability. But totally misconceiving the role, the usually thoughtful Kent Johnson goes instead from insufferable prig to romantic leading man. The only thing that saves him is the chemistry between himself and Alfrey.

Rapidly becoming a set designer to reckon with, Doug Gettel has created elegantly understated drawing rooms that serve as tasteful suggestions of numerous posh locales. Thanks to Udden's luscious costume designs, they're filled with the finest society. In fact, Main Street itself is now in the finest society, mounting this show on its newly acquired second stage in Chelsea Market in the Museum District. The acting area is much bigger and more adaptable than Main Street's small, structurally confining site on Times Boulevard. It's too fine a space to, as is currently planned, be used only for Main Street's children's theater and the occasional large production such as this one. Though up and running, the second stage is still under construction, though that's probably gauche of me to point out. For as one of the Bennets notes, "Exertion should always be in proportion to what is required." Main Street is moving up in the theatrical world.

Pride and Prejudice plays through March 9 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.

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