Theater review: ‘Christmas at Pemberley’ a smart, charming holiday show at Playhouse on Park

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  • Jane Austen
    Jane Austen
    English novelist (1775-1817)

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” at Playhouse on Park through Dec. 23, looks smart, acts smart and is a smart alternative to all the wacky or tacky Christmas shows that clog the theaters this month.

It’s a charming return to the sort of quaint, romantic melodrama that ruled the theater world for much of the 20th century, though its roots are mainly literary.

“Christmas at Pemberley” is an audacious sequel to Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice,” concentrating on the only one of the four Bennet sisters who remains unmarried at the end of the book.

Playhouse on Park staged a “Pride and Prejudice” play two years ago, just before the COVID-19 shutdown. This was the popular adaptation of Austen’s book by Kate Hamill, which also got produced at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater that season. Hamill’s version is a loving parody of “Pride and Prejudice” set in 1813 when the novel was published but seen through a modern lens, with actors crossing age and gender expectations to play multiple characters, a contemporary pop music score and plenty of winks at the audience.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” — by Lauren Gunderson (whose bracing feminist historical comedy “The Revolutionists” was done at Playhouse in Park in 2019) and Margot Melcon — has a different style and attitude than Hamill’s “Pride and Prejudice.” While Playhouse on Park’s production tries to link the two shows with disco music between scenes, a racially diverse cast and frisky, animated performances, the script doesn’t veer into parody or irony. It’s a sweet love story, with a lot of light comedy, about Austen’s endearing Bennet sisters and their romantic foibles.

Other than exaggerating the sisters’ personalities, heightening conflict and using contrived plot devices like unsigned love letters ending up in the wrong hands (which, granted, Shakespeare used too), Gunderson and Melcon are using Austen’s characters to further the novelist’s themes of female empowerment, inner fortitude and spirited nonconformity.

This is a story of strong women getting what they want, often aided by their supportive husbands.

In paying special attention to Mary, the Bennet sister commonly described as “plain” or “bookish,” and to whom the novel ascribes “a pedantic air and conceited manner,” “Christmas at Pemberley” is able to flip some hoary stereotypes that Austen herself put in place. Of course, the play is still feeding into heteronormative class-based marriage fantasies in adherence to a patriarchal hegemony, but you can’t have everything.

After all, “Pride and Prejudice” is the novel that begins with this line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Mary’s intellect and talent, it is implied, is a detriment to her finding any husband at all, let alone a soulmate. Her younger and already married sister Lydia is so oblivious to the concept that anyone could find Mary a desirable husband that when such a person appears, Lydia blithely starts flirting with him herself. That triangle consumes much of the first act. A whole different rival for Mary arrives just before intermission. Spoiler alert: Love conquers all.

Mary and Lydia, supporting characters in Austen’s book, get all the fun this time, while their sisters Elizabeth and Jane (played with extensive charm and grace by Dakota Mackey-McGee and Kristin Fulton) stroll about in the background, immaculately dressed, giving kind advice. (The fifth sister from the book, Kitty, does not make an appearance.)

Similarly, Elizabeth and Jane’s husbands Mr. Darcy (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen) and Mr. Bingley (Karim Nematt) are mainly there to provide an air of decorum. If someone gets out of hand, these older, settled couples (having been married a whole two years at the time of this story) are around to gently tell them to calm down.

As Mary, Sydney Torres plays up the character’s intelligence and confidence, but also imbues her with a wicked sense of humor. She feels misunderstood, but not in a withdrawn self-defeating way.

Mary’s love interest is the boyish lord Arthur de Bourgh, an entirely new character not found in the “Pride and Prejudice” novel, and played here as a naïve, socially awkward and completely adorable young Oxford scholar by Ted Gibson.

Even a comedy of manners needs a spitfire, and Laura Axelrod as Lydia is the volatile element that upends civility so that it can neatly get straightened out again.

While most of the actors are Playhouse on Park first-timers, director Sasha Bratt has helmed numerous shows (plus a playreading series) there. He knows how to fill that wide, deep performance space with wide circular strolls, wild dashes and some lovely dancing.

Christmas is a fairly incidental part of the plot – there are a lot of wisecracks about the weird German trend of decorating a pine tree inside one’s house, and holiday parties are the main pretext for new characters to enter the play.

What drives the script more is the love of good literature. Mary and Arthur’s relationship is based on their exuberant thirst for knowledge. They express their shared passion for reading throughout the play, cutting down the ignorant non-readers and dreaming of globetrotting adventures they plan to take based on books and maps they’ve read.

Mary also reads music, and when she feels shut out by others she expresses her emotions through the piano. Torres is rather convincing in these scenes, hunching her shoulders and giving wild glances while hammering at the keys at the back of the stage.

For Playhouse on Park, “Christmas at Pemberley” is a chance to brighten the holidays and give audiences the theatergoing equivalent of snuggling up with a good book.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” runs through Dec. 23 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Dec. 21-23 performances are all at 7:30 p.m. $40-$50; $37.50-$47.50 for students, seniors, military and Let’s Go Arts members. playhouseonpark.org/.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.

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