Jon Jory's new adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, being launched at Arizona Theatre Company before moving on to other theaters, does almost everything right.
It creates a fast-moving, involving stage work out of a beloved prose piece (not so difficult in this case, because Austen wrote a lot of dialogue). Jory gets the entire story told without either cramming the script with detail or omitting anything crucial. His clean, clockwork direction keeps everything clear and logical, even when a dozen people are swirling through the ballroom scenes. The cast conveys Austen's intelligent witticisms neatly, without resorting to physical or verbal pratfalls. The costumes are lovely; the simple set proves sufficiently versatile, and the sound and light design support it all effectively, without becoming distractions.
This would be a fabulous production if it weren't for one thing: The depiction of the central character is absolutely wrong.
Austen's novel, published in 1813, introduces us to the middle-class English household of the Bennets. Mrs. Bennet, a loudly shallow woman, has exactly one goal in life: to place her five daughters in good marriages--that is, match them to the wealthiest men they can possibly attract. Mr. Bennet, a passive fellow, observes all this with amusement and gentle cynicism, doing what he can to keep his daughters from making huge mistakes.
The eldest daughter, Jane, seems to be developing an honestly devoted relationship with a wealthy neighbor named Bingley. During this courtship, the No. 2 Bennet daughter, Elizabeth, meets Bingley's friend Darcy, a wealthy, proud and offish fellow who is taken to be arrogant. Darcy, who disdains the not-entirely-couth Bennets, against his will develops an interest in Elizabeth. Yet Elizabeth quickly forms a prejudice against her ineffective suitor, for Darcy interferes in Bingley's courtship of Jane and is rumored to have behaved coldly and brutally in certain other social situations.
Obviously, Elizabeth and Darcy are meant for each other. But not during Act 1.
Unfortunately, Julia Dion is either badly miscast or misdirected as Elizabeth. She's essentially playing the same character she did two seasons ago when Jory directed her here in The Underpants: a high-strung young woman unsure of how to channel her sexuality. Jory and Dion have apparently picked up on Austen's fleeting reference to Elizabeth's "easy playfulness" and grossly exaggerated this characteristic. The playing is too broad; Dion's theatricality, her simultaneous extremes of extroversion and self-deprecation, reduce Elizabeth's intelligence and irony to mocking silliness. Here, she's almost as giddy as her two youngest sisters. Elizabeth, like her father, needs to make her points through subtle but sharp irony, not puppy-dog goofiness. How could the uptight Darcy ever be attracted to such a person?
Darcy, on the other hand, steps out of the novel in fine form, thanks to the work of Anthony Marble. It's clear from Marble's performance that Darcy seems arrogant mainly because he is painfully shy, and so he forms in his mind--a place more comfortable for him than any parlor or ballroom--a set of opinions and expectations that will not bend to the forces of reality.
It's true that Darcy is a snob, and he must seriously compromise his pride in order to propose to Elizabeth halfway through the story, but Marble also lets us see that Darcy's habitual silence has nothing to do with snobbery; he merely becomes inarticulate when he is expected to speak of anything personal. Marble creates sympathy for Darcy from beginning to end, without glossing over the character's very real flaws.
Among the production's many other actors (all but two of whose bios declare them to be either "delighted" or "thrilled" to appear with ATC), David Pichette stands out for his wry, genial portrayal of Mr. Bennet. There's been something a little wicked and subversive in Pichette's eyes ever since his first appearance here as the mad Renfield in Dracula in the 1990s, and his mere presence on the stage will perk up any scene, even in a relaxed part like this. Amy Resnick, who made a big impression in the small role of a maid in last season's more worse than better For Better or Worse, makes good use of a nasal, staccato delivery as Bingley's jaded but class-conscious sister. Liam Vincent is nicely earnest and eager as Bingley, and Remi Sandri manages to make one of the daughters' dully loquacious suitors into something better than an insufferable fool.
As for Julia Dion, she is by no means an inadequate actress. She is, in fact, quite good and extremely endearing at what she does. The problem is that she's playing some character in a Jon Jory script, not Elizabeth Bennet in Austen's Pride and Prejudice.