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‘Pemberley’ at American Stage: There’s something about Mary

Bill DeYoung

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Brooke Tyler Benson (Elizabeth) and Britt Michael Gordon (Mr. Darcy). Joey Clay Photography

When last we checked in with Elizabeth Bennet, the feisty, tart-tongued heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she was newly betrothed to the handsome and beguiling Mr. Darcy, who’d won her milky-white hand following a series of oh-so-whimsical romantic misadventures.

With more than 20 million copies sold, the 1813 novel has been a cornerstone of the English-speaking fiction lexicon for one generation after another of schoolgirls, dreamers and romanticists; if Pride and Prejudice wasn’t so universally beloved – it’s been made into at least five movies and TV miniseries and a dozen “sequels,” none of them written by Jane Austen, who died in 1817 – it would be considered the grandmother of “chick lit.”

Truth is, it’s more than that. A 2003 survey by the BBC called Pride and Prejudice the second-best-loved book in the entire United Kingdom, after Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

It continues to seduce and inspire. The whole Bridget Jones’ Diary phenomenon was a modern take on Pride and Prejudice.

Not to be confused with the Hallmark Channel’s recently-debuted cutesy-poo Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe (which starred Lacey “17 Hallmark movies and counting” Chabert as feisty, tart-tongued Darcy Fitzwilliam) comes Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

The play, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, opens Friday and runs through Dec. 30 at American Stage. Catch it in previews tonight (Nov. 28) and Thursday.

Gunderson (I And You) is one of the top 20 most-produced playwrights in the country, and was America’s most produced living playwright for the years 2016 and 2017.

According to American Stage producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, who’s directing Christmas at Pemberley, the show is cut from the most authentic Austen cloth we’re likely to find.

“It brings together Margot’s dramaturgical expertise in Jane Austen and the world of the English Regency era, and Lauren’s brilliance with dialogue and female heroines,” Gularte says. “And that collective skill set has really manifested in something very special.”

Set in 1815, the play finds Lizzie (now Mrs. Darcy) and her husband laying out all the lavish holiday trimmings at their estate, Pemberley Manor.

The focus this time is on Mary, the bookish middle Bennet sister. As the family gathers at Pemberley for turkey, wine and merriment, she is despondent that true love – the sort her sisters Lizzie and Jane (famously wooed and won by the affable Mr. Bingley) discovered in Pride and Prejudice.

Ah, but fate has a gift under the tree for our Mary, in the form of a similarly bookish (and awkward) young male acquaintance of the Master of Pemberley.

Guess who’s coming for Christmas dinner?

Raved CDMetroTheaterArts: “Droll and delicious, Miss Bennet is a charming, confectionary celebration of fan favorite characters from Pride and Prejudice, multi-generationally honoring the legacy of Jane Austen’s humor, playfulness and wit in a warm-spirited holiday theatrical production.”

It’s “a perfectly constructed love story,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. “Given its fizzy comedy, sweet spirit and clean structure, Miss Bennet seems destined to populate future holiday seasons.”

“I love that they chose Mary as the focal point for this story,” Gularte says. “Because if you go back and look at any of the cinematic interpretations of Pride and Prejudice, poor Mary really gets the short end of the deal. She’s kind of made into sort of a clownish background character.

“So it’s great to have this new female heroine to really root for. We get to see her really come into her own.”

Jenny Lester plays Mary Bennet, with Josh Odesess-Rubin as Arthur De Bourgh. Joey Clay Photography

 

 

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