Less than proud of Pride and Prejudice

More prejudice than pride
Michael Brosilow

Dear Guthrie Theater: Enough.Enough with the poorly considered adaptations of literary classics. Enough with the sluggish and middle-of-the-road direction. Enough with actors mugging their way through the shows instead of presenting fully realized characters.

Just enough.

Pride and Prejudice, the theater's newly opened adaptation of Jane Austen's comedy of manners, is as sharp as a stick of soft butter. It often feels like a long, dull summary of the book, with a company of talented actors rarely finding any humanity behind the extreme mannerisms of their characters.

If you are familiar with the original book — or any number of previous TV, stage, and film adaptations, not to mention modern-day riffs like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — you'll know the situation. Situated on the lower end of the upper classes in Regency England, the Bennet family struggles to find husbands for its five wild and willful daughters.

The story centers on Elizabeth (Ashley Rose Montondo), the headstrong second daughter, who finds herself repelled and intrigued by Mr. Darcy (Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men), a visitor to their area. Their mainly off-again love affair stretches over a year before fate — well, actually sitting down and talking to each other — brings them together. Along the way, there is a dizzying number of balls, sitting-room scenes, and attempts at courting as efforts are made to find partners with strong enough financial portfolios or social standing for the Bennet girls.

It's all supposed to be more than a bit silly, but I couldn't help but think about the missing subtext here, especially after a pair of the young women — one Bennet girl and her cousin — find themselves in pretty horrid marriage situations. One ends up with a crusty and socially inept middle-aged priest (Kris L. Nelson), while the other lands with a military officer who is rival to Mr. Darcy and an absolute cad. It's hard to envision much joy in their future lives, but the script (by Simon Reade) just brushes them off without a second thought.

Beyond Reade's flat-lining script, there are the performances. Montondo is solid as Elizabeth, showcasing the fire and individuality of her character. Kartheiser isn't much of an acting partner as Mr. Darcy. There is little about his performance to indicate that the two characters are destined for each other. That lack of chemistry strips the play of a lot of the pleasure that comes at the end when they finally do get together.

Beyond that, the sisters are largely interchangeable, with their distinctions played out in the broadest of strokes. Hugh Kennedy doesn't give us much as Mr. Bingley, another of the suitors. Suzanne Warmanen plays mother Mrs. Bennet so over the top that the performance goes from entertaining to sort of funny to fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoying in the space of a few scenes. And there are plenty more scenes to go.

Nelson also pushes his character to the brink, but his limited stage time makes him more of an appropriate comic foil. Sally Wingert gets to be absurd and frightening as the looming Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose austere manner and burning desire to keep Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy apart make for the most interesting dramatic (and comic) moments of the night. Pity there are so few of them, as more would have likely given this production an engine to propel it forward.

Peter Thomson puts in the show's best performance as the father, Mr. Bennet. Thomson manages to be comic at the right moments, serious when needed, and ultimately a warm, calming presence who hides his desperation to get his daughters into not just financially advantageous marriages but ones where they will be happy.

It's all wrapped together by Joe Dowling's soggy and superficial direction, which makes the show neither a laugh riot nor an engaging romance. It's just ... there. And this isn't the only Guthrie — or Dowling-directed — show that felt this way in recent years. You can add in just about any of the other new literary adaptations they've attempted, from The Great Gatsby to Little House on the Prairie to The Master Butcher's Singing Club to the absolutely dire Primrose Path a couple of months ago. Please, Guthrie, make it stop.

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