Sense & Sensibility: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
[Note: The fellowing is a review of the 2014 production, which has now returned for a longer run at the Gym at Judson. The cast is the largely unchanged, but Gabra Zackman replaces Eric Tucker in the role of Mrs. Jennings.]
Any stab at Jane Austen calls for heaps of subtlety and decorum—of which the scrappy Bedlam company, happily, supplies none. Theirs is a rowdy, exuberant rendition of the Austen novel, thoroughly modern yet not at all contemporized. Kate Hamill's felicitous adaptation gives us ageless emotions, couched in the mores and locutions of the past, yet timeless in their arduously suppressed intensity.
As in most of Austen’s work, the plot pits nobility of spirit versus financial strictures. Elinor Dashwood (played by company cofounder Andrus Nichols with a De Havilland–style mix of spine and vulnerability) is the eldest of three sisters left penniless at the death of their father, whose estate was entailed to the male issue of an earlier marriage. Dashwood Jr.’s wife, the greedy Fanny (deliciously acidulous Laura Baranik), nixes her husband’s promise to help out his suddenly impoverished half sisters, essentially abandoning them to the mercy of distant relations.
Fanny, proactive as she is sharp-eyed, also manages to put the kibosh on a nascent attachment between her shy, bookish but financially secure elder brother (Jason O’Connell) and the compatibly high-minded Elinor. Upon Fanny’s insulting insinuation that Elinor is seeking a “catch,” her mother (stalwart Samantha Steinmetz) removes her penniless brood to a country cottage, where they come under the care of a hunt-loving country squire, Sir John Middleton (Stephan Wolfert, in full chin-receding, hup-hup mode), and his matchmaking-minded mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Eric Tucker, acting as well as directing).
Plot twists grow increasingly complicated, an effect doubled when several cast members take on supplementary roles, some toggling between identities within the same scene. It’s a tribute to Hamill’s astute compression and the company’s collective talent that each turn of events not only reads clearly but transpires with extraordinary celerity, thanks also to set designer John McDermott’s decision to have all the scenic elements (chairs, divans, dinner tables, mullioned trellises) mounted on wheels. Fresh scenes come together in a flash, as the uninvolved actors push—or propel—their active, seated counterparts into the next sequence.
It’s a nonstop delight, the textual richness of Austen’s text matched by the playful staging. At any given moment, there’s some little footnote to savor: Baranik, for instance, as an unnamed dowager (Angela Huff’s intentionally slapdash costuming provides bare-minimum signifiers, here a tiara) off in a corner, sucking her teeth in boredom and disgust; Wolfert briefly embodying a horse, pawing and chuffing impatiently; nosy neighbors with ears pressed to the window, providing play-by-plays of the latest development, and so on.
Though the style aims for over-the-top, most actors manage to find the core of truth within their caricatures. Steinmetz goes a bit too far as Anne Steele, a braying, Aspergerishly gauche aspiring socialite. Conversely, the quarterback-proportioned Tucker underplays Mrs. Jennings, relying primarily on the built-in sight gag of transvestism. (Could he not essay a more rounded archetype, that of a super annuated belle sublimating her own romantic yearnings by overzealously pairing off the young?)
Minor missteps aside (Tucker clearly has his hands full steering this galloping gavotte), Sense & Sensibility makes for a fun theatrical outing, one likely to send you back to the source.Treat yourself to a classic that’s faithful in its own inventive fashion.—Theater review by Sandy MacDonald