SALT LAKE CITY — Whatever happened to Mary, the bookish middle sister in Pride and Prejudice? This season, Pioneer Theatre Company is offering a glimpse into her future with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
The relatively new play starred Elizabeth Ramos as Mary Bennet, who still tends to a know-it-all and sour grape two years after the novel ended. But now, she also finds herself painfully single, in contrast to her merrily married sisters Elizabeth (played by Emily Nash) and Jane (played by Rachel Clausen). Fortunately, a handsome stranger is about to walk into Mary’s life (and her house, without ringing the doorbell apparently) in the form of Arthur de Bourgh (played by Jamen Nanthakumar). Will she fall in love with the only single man in the show? It’s likely!
The show, directed by Julie Kramer, was staged in a single set in the style of a drawing room domestic drama. Set designer Lauren Helpern created a stately Pemberley interior with living room and semi-segmented library, and the cut-away ceiling separating the two was cool. Frosty windows gave the set a festive spirit and a feeling of place, and—unlike real Regency-era England—there were no servants to be seen.
The script is packed with jokes which the audience enjoyed throughout the night. Being familiar with the characters does certainly help, especially in the best scene of the night where Darcy (played by Greg Balla) and Bingley (played by Logan James Hall) sit Arthur down and tell him what it is like to be attached to a Bennet girl. Livening up the cast was Jessica Naimy as uncontrollable flirt Lydia, now unhappily married to an absent Mr. Wickham. With the rest of the cast acting prim and proper, it was a relief whenever Lydia appeared onstage to stir up some romantic mischief.
As is standard at Pioneer Theatre Company, the actors, mostly equity professionals from out of state, were above grade. While their accents wouldn’t fool anyone, the movement and speech was enjoyable. When a blunder with a recorded piano track caused a major snafu, they carried on with class. (Why do recorded tracks always seem to wreak such havoc on theaters? Including one is like opening Pandora’s box. Couldn’t PTC just have a piano in the pit?)
How does this show, written by Lauren Gunderson and first-time playwright Margot Melcon, compare to the original Pride and Prejudice? You mean one of the greatest novels of all time, universally cherished with iconic characters, rapier wit and endlessly enjoyed and produced in a variety of formats? Unsurprisingly, Christmas at Pemberley is a pale imitation, and the comparison is unavoidable (as occurs with any sequel). Christmas at Pemberley does have many witty one-liners, and it is interesting to imagine the future life of minor character Mary and explore what makes her tick. But this is pretty shallow stuff, more on-par with a television romcom than classic literature. But, hey, people do love romcoms.
The plot’s worst offense is the contrived, groan-worthy return of novel villain Anne de Bourgh (played by Savannah Moffat) who claims Miss Bennet can’t marry her beau because he’s already engaged to her! It’s a retread of the book’s plot, except this time it’s Mary instead of her sister Elizabeth, and Arthur instead of his cousin Darcy. Give me a break. Can’t the playwrights think of an original villain or conflict? Lydia’s sad state of affairs seems like a much more interesting conflict to explore. And speaking of lazy writing, there is even a gender-swapped version of the “It is a truth universally acknowledged” line. My stomach turned.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the script shamelessly aping material. Pioneer Theatre Company chose to model each character after the iconic 1995 BBC mini-series. The resemblance of the Bennet sisters and Mr. Bingley to their small-screen counterparts was truly impressive—an incredible work of casting, costumes, makeup and hair (design respectively by Bob Cline, Susan Branch Towne, and Amanda French). While Balla wasn’t much of a dead ringer for Darcy, he did attempt to make up for it by imitating Colin Firth’s speech patterns. These similarities will certainly please those in love with the BBC’s version of the characters. But I wish Pioneer would have had more confidence in itself and its audience by imagining the characters for themselves, instead of copying another artistic production to which it has no relationship.
Press for Christmas at Pemberley has stressed that it is definitely NOT just fan-fiction or just for diehard Janeites. Eh…sorry. It is the definition of fan fiction, and its bountiful in-jokes will find an appreciative audience. It’s not a great play by any measure, and there’s no way Pioneer would produce something like it any other time of year. On the whole, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley offers an evening of light amusement, best appreciated by certain Jane Austen fans. There were certainly plenty of laughs to be had, and some appreciative audience members offered standing ovations. If you love all things Austenesque, this may be the show for you. For everyone else, there may be better seasonal offerings out there.