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A rapidly imagined Pride and Prejudice is still fine Austen

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre tackles Pride and Prejudice.



A note to fans of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Jon Jory's 2006 stage adaptation, onstage at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is the SparkNotes version. And to those unfamiliar with the 1813 novel? You might read the SparkNotes summary before attending.

I fit in the first category, so I wasn't helped by rewatching the six-hour (also condensed) BBC version (Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) and rereading the book — yes, both — in the past year. This production of the romantic saga is told quickly (in 130 minutes, not including the intermission). I tried to watch from the perspective of viewers less familiar with the details — would they follow everything? — but I'd already eaten the apple.

With its many characters and plot threads, Pride and Prejudice is an ambitious undertaking for any dramatist, and Jory wastes no time touring country estates. The MET show includes 19 actors playing 27 characters, some making such brief appearances (the role of Georgiana Darcy, for instance) that I nearly forgot they were in it.

On director Karen Paisley's mostly bare stage (the audience sits on rising rows of seats on each side), with a portico at one end and a gazebolike structure at the other, actors enter and exit quickly — movement is virtually constant — to move scenes along. A bench is brought in, and Elizabeth (Emily Peterson) and Mr. Wickham (Matt Leonard, giving off just enough of the bad boy) are talking in the garden. The bench is removed, and Elizabeth is back in the house at Longbourn. Mr. Bingley (Taylor St. John, refined and guileless and clumsy) and his sister, Caroline (Stefanie Wienecke, scornful and snobby), appear at the portico to hand off an invitation to Mr. Collins. Mere seconds later, dancers take the floor at the Netherfield ball (where TJ Chasteen, as the pompous Collins, is at his funniest when he dances with Elizabeth). And Bingley sweeps in to claim Jane (Liz Clark Golson).

Likewise, benches form a carriage, and Elizabeth and the Gardiners (Karen Paisley and Alan Tilson) are suddenly traipsing onto the Pemberley estate. The scenes with the housekeeper and Darcy at Pemberley are just as eye-blink brief. Sometimes characters remain onstage when they're separated by geography, but lighting (by Greg Casparian) helps connect them. After Darcy delivers his letter to Elizabeth on her walk, he remains in a dimmer light because he isn't really there.

Peterson is an opinionated, headstrong and, in this interpretation, emotive Elizabeth. She and Todd Carlton Lanker (as the detached, sexy, arrogant Darcy) remain strongly central amid the musical-chairs composition. Both actors were in The Importance of Being Earnest, at the American Heartland Theatre, until April 15 (this play opened April 19), but they've completely left behind the shallow Cecily and the dandy Algernon. Cathy Wood, too, held a small role in that production, yet here becomes the ditzy, nervous, graceless Mrs. Bennet.

Marilyn Lynch makes a big impression in her small appearances as the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And Robert Gibby Brand nearly upstages the stars as the lovingly sarcastic Mr. Bennet. When Mrs. Bennet says, "I can hardly explain to you, the shocking rudeness of Mr. Darcy," he replies simply: "Then how wise not to try."

Jory might have heeded that advice. His play's biggest drawback — the time, or lack of it — means that much (probably too much, even with the script's use of narration) is left out. The two protagonists' ultimate hookup, though, is one of the reasons that we're drawn back to this romance, no matter what the form, over and over again. Even this version has the power to elicit the usual teary-eyed joy — as long as you stay alert and keep up.

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