Tomfoolerie with the classics? Play straight, please.


LONDON – If you are thinking of revisiting a classic novel written by a woman, you should probably give this task to women. This is the vanity behind “Pride and Prejudice * (* sort of),” a play that is now at the Criterion Theater here for an open run. The production, a 2018 Edinburgh Festival success, will most likely appeal to those who don’t have time to actually read Jane Austen: Let the five talented performers in the all-female cast relay the novel in their own, irrepressible and unstoppable ways. ridiculous.

The parenthesis in the title sets the cheeky tone. Written by Isobel McArthur “after Jane Austen,” as the program puts it, the show gives us all the age-old characters, from the self-dramatizing Mrs. Bennet to her five marital-struggling daughters. Men are not excluded either: McArthur, the writer, doing the triple duty of co-director of the play (with Simon Harvey) and as one of the hard-working actors, drops his voice as required. to play Fitzwilliam Darcy, the unchanging idol of the book.

Putting a contemporary twist on a Regency-era tale, the play co-opts music to make a point: barely has the bride-to-be, Elizabeth Bennet (a shining-eyed Meghan Tyler), fallen under the spell. Mr. Darcy’s grip before embarking on Carly Simon’s standard “You’re So Vain”. In the spirit of adventure, the cast members also play musical instruments, and there is a reference to “The Phantom of the Opera”, which plays around the corner, in a gag order. opening involving a falling chandelier.

The intention is to play quickly and freely with the source while honoring its spirit, which for the most part is successful. Mr. Darcy’s eventual confession of his desire for Elizabeth is accompanied by the puffy sounds of “I think I love you” from the Partridge family. Domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Christina Gordon) walks in to music by lookalike Chris de Burgh, and we hear swear words that surely would have made Austen herself blush.

I wish more could have been said about the initial suggestion that we will see these characters from the point of view of the servants, whose employment allows the Bennets to lead a quiet life. At first, performer Hannah Jarrett-Scott gallops into Doc Martens, busy with her household chores and not quite ready for the start of the show. (“We haven’t started yet,” she exclaims.)

But all kind of class commentary soon disappears. It is “Pride and Prejudice” with a festive atmosphere. “Are you having a good time?” We were asked belatedly, to which spectators on a recent morning responded to the recall by hopping to their feet.

The playfulness with a resilient source also informs “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a play by Christopher Durang that draws three of its main characters from Chekhov. A Broadway hit, where it won the Tony for Best Play in 2013, the comedy is at the Charing Cross Theater until January 8. The production, initially scheduled just as the pandemic took hold, is directed by Walter Bobbie, whose Broadway staging of “Chicago” recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

In Durang’s story, Vanya and Sonia are no longer the uncle and niece of Chekhovian fame. Instead, they’re siblings who share a disgruntled life in rural Pennsylvania while their more glamorous sister Masha (Janie Dee), an actress, is rounding up toy boys like Spike (Charlie Maher).

Much of the first half consists of an extended discussion of what costumes this trio should wear to a party: Old maid Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) is unsure whether she should play Jean Harlow or Marlene Dietrich, although we soon find out she can do a spot – on Maggie Smith’s voice impersonation. The tone darkens a little after the intermission, with a series of monologues in which, as in “Uncle Vanya”, the characters discuss their mental disorder. “I’m worried about the future and miss the past,” says Vanya (a moody Michael Maloney), who turns out to be gay and adores tonic Spike in various states of undress.

Dee’s fiery Masha has been married five times but isn’t beyond worrying about an outfit that locals don’t like: at times like these, the play falls into the relatively cheesy realm of the sitcom ( a genre unknown to Chekhov). Additional characters include Nina (Lukwesa Mwamba), the name referring to someone from another Chekhov play, “The Seagull”, and an emphatic seer named – you get it – Cassandra (Sara Powell). The literary ancestors might be there, but the play doesn’t pay homage to Chekhov so much that it leaves you yearning for his wit and wisdom.

After two shows that riffle (and in the case of the Durang, sometimes belittle) one or two illustrious sources, Ralph Fiennes arrives to give us the real thing, no frills and no editing. The protean actor, rarely absent from the stage, takes the stage in a theatrical performance of TS Eliot’s “Four Quartets” at the Harold Pinter Theater until December 18th. The production, lasting 75 minutes without intermission, represents an alternative to the japerie in sight nearby.

Eliot’s masterpiece was written in four parts while the poet was also evolving as a playwright, and Fiennes treats this writer’s often obscure language as dramatic material, as powerful in his own way as the texts by Shakespeare to whom this actor returns regularly. I doubt I’m the only one who doesn’t know what Eliot meant by the words “deliberate hebetude” of “East Coker”, the second of the quartets. But there is no denying the bewitching charm of a performer who can make even the sound opaque immediately. (I consulted it later: “Hebetude” means lethargy, or dullness.)

Appearing barefoot, stopping to sip water or move the gray slabs that make up the elegantly austere decor of designer Hildegard Bechtler, the actor guides us through Eliot’s long meditation on consciousness and hope. , exploration and loss. Fiennes physically engages in an agile performance in which his body often twists in response to images of Eliot. And at a time when other London scenes are filtering the great work through a revisionist lens, here is the thing itself, endlessly and endlessly alive.

Pride and prejudice * (* in a way). Directed by Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey. Criterion Theater, unlimited tour.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Charing Cross Theater, until January 8.
Four quartets. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Harold Pinter Theater, until December 18.

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