Actors excel in adaptation of Austen novel

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Michael Toscano

How do you adapt a venerated, 400-page novel for the stage, especially in this era of fragmented, Blackberry-addled attention spans?

Fairly well, if you’re Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, whose version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is now onstage at Round House Theatre Bethesda.

It’s a longish show, running (with intermission) at almost two hours and 45 minutes on opening night. But except for several sluggish scenes late in Act 1, it’s a sprightly, well-performed show.

Round House Producing Artistic Director Blake Robison traveled west to the Utah Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 2010 to direct this adaptation, and the experience produced artistic benefits for local audiences.

For this D.C.-area premiere, he brought back his two stars from that production, Kate Cook and Michael Brusasco, as characters who fight against their own faults to fall in love. The results of their spending so much time with these characters are performances that have an extra level of resonance. The effect is to accent the lightness of Austen’s tone, even if it dilutes her satirical view a bit.

A battle of the sexes

Our tale is set in England’s Regency Period, a brief span between the Georgian and Victorian eras when, supposedly, women wielded most of the power in courtship. In this case, the courtship takes place over a year around the turn of the 19th century as Mrs. Bennet (Catherine Flye) tries to marry off her five daughters.

She’s frantic and is much less concerned about the suitors’ character than she is with their wealth and proper social status. It seems that because of an old will, when Mr. Bennet, played by Rick Fouchex, expires, their estate will leave the immediate family. So their security as members of the gentry hinges on the daughters making “good” marriages.

When wealthy Mr. Bingley (Clinton Brandhagen) arrives to summer in the country, he brings with him his mischievous sister Caroline (Susan Lynskey) and the rich and dashing Mr. Darcy (Brusasco). Darcy and the strong-willed and intelligent Bennet daughter Elisabeth (Cook) soon engage in a battle of the sexes, leading, of course, to romantic rapprochement.

Innovative stage set

The light, playful tenor is marked at the outset by Narelle Sissons’ set, a floor-to-ceiling cube on a turntable. Red-coated soldiers resembling Nutcracker statues turn a large key set in one side, which starts the turntable spinning like a combination toy house and music box. Doors open in each side to reveal small interior settings.

Otherwise, the stage is barren, framed by massive blow-ups of a handwritten manuscript of the novel’s pages. The rapid scene changes allowed by the set make most of the play flow quickly and seamlessly.

The only exceptions come in the second part of the first act, where dialogue becomes weighed down by extensive exposition and discussion. Energy begins to lag, but it picks up again as the second act opens and never fades again.

The cast mixes local favorites (including Fouchex, Flye, Lynskey, and Michael Tolaydo, who handles two supporting parts) with D.C. newcomer Cook and Brusasco, who makes his Round House debut. The entire cast seems to delight in Austen’s wit, and it’s infectious.

Flye has long-ago perfected her English not-so-grand-dame persona, and trots it out again to exceedingly comic effect. Every syllable, every facial expression is perfectly exaggerated to draw maximum fun, and she will likely earn a Helen Hayes nomination for her work here.

Flye makes Mrs. Bennet’s pursuit of wealthy suitors for her daughters endearing, when she might otherwise be insufferable. Likewise, Lynskey’s voice is a catty purr as she delights in poking the foibles of those experiencing the pangs of love. We share in her delight, rather than condemn it.

Lead characters brought to life

Brusasco and Cook possess their roles to a remarkable degree. Cook shows us a strong woman who can’t help resisting the social conventions she finds restraining, but she does so with warmth and good humor. Brusasco has a more challenging role, as Darcy must be difficult and arrogant, yet principled.

In Act 1, the dialogue and action accents the man’s flaws, and in Act 2 he is rather suddenly revealed as a softie at heart. It is an abrupt transformation, but Brusasco smoothes the edges.

The late scenes in which Darcy and Elizabeth stop fussing and accept that their strong personalities actually mesh well are skillfully calibrated and enchanting. She is winsome, yet never loses the sensible, whip-smart personality that makes Elizabeth an enduring heroine.

Brusasco makes us believe the stammering, love struck guy we see here is a natural extension of the haughty man we met earlier. Yes, he’s pride, and she’s prejudice, but by the end they are both redemption.

Jane Austen’s gift to generations of readers with Pride and Prejudice is a combination of sharp wit and her dexterity in exploring the magic that brings women and men together, especially when their faults get in the way.

Overcoming those barriers is a universal aspiration, whether in the English countryside 200 years ago, or in the age of social media. The book speaks clearly through Robison’s staged version, and is a welcome holiday treat for its fans.

 Pride and Prejudice continues through Dec. 31 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday evening performances begin at 8 p.m. Matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday begin at 3 p.m.

Special performances have been added during the holiday period. A post-show “talkback” is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 11, and there will be a sign-interpreted performance on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 3 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $10 to $60. “$10 Tuesday” tickets are available for all age groups on Dec. 13, 20 and 27.

Round House offers discounts on non-subscription tickets to patrons 65 and older for center orchestra or center balcony seating. The price for Pride and Prejudice is $40 per ticket. The discount must be requested at the time of ordering. Proof of age is required when tickets are claimed at the box office. These tickets are not available online. There is a limit of four tickets per order.

For tickets and more information, call (240) 644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theatre critic.