Pride and Prejudice and Celebrity Creeping

Tuesday evening found me sitting in a red plush chair, in the very, very back row of the Guthrie Theatre’s Wurtele Thrust Stage.  My sister was next to me, and under our breath we were singing the theme song from Gilmore Girls.

Why?  Because the production was Pride and Prejudice, and playing Mr. Darcy was Vincent Kartheiser.  Kartheiser, or Pete Campbell as you may know him from AMC’s Mad Men, is engaged to Alexis Bledel.  Alexis Bledel played Rory on Gilmore Girls.  So you see that although we were only at a preview show, although it was a Tuesday night, and although we were much too high up to do much effective celebrity sighting anyway, Amy and I thought that it might somehow summon Ms. Bledel should we sing her song.

Photo source unknown.

Photo source unknown.

What I’m about to launch into is a play review.  But before I begin with the pros and cons, and before I tell you whether or not I was in the presence of Ms. Bledel on Tuesday evening (or she was in mine), I have a few disclaimers: 1) The performance of Pride and Prejudice I attended was a preview performance, which means that between the show I saw and the “official” show, some things will likely change.  Elements that I thought could have used improvement may indeed improve by opening night, and perhaps elements I adored will have gone missing.  Please don’t accuse me of sleeping through it if the show you see is different from the one I did.  2) I was sitting in the very back row of the theatre, and off to the right.  While I could see and hear what was happening well enough, there were some facial expressions and some quieter lines that I may have missed simply because I was so far away from the stage.  As I firmly believe that acting should be delivered to an entire theatre–peanut gallery and all–I will certainly let my physical perspective influence my commentary.  3) Preview night is a whole lot cheaper than “official” showings, and you don’t feel at all deprived.  I highly encourage you to take advantage of one some time.

If you asked me to say what I thought of the show in the most general terms, I would say this: Pride and Prejudice is not meant for the stage.  If you’ve read the novel, or even seen one of the many movie and TV adaptations, you know that the plot of the novel is extremely complicated, and peppered throughout with surprise meetings, with an abundance of characters who it is imperative we get to know, and with intimate moments which sometimes take place in the largest and loudest of settings.  I don’t blame the playwright one bit for attempting to make it work: Pride and Prejudice is beloved.  It is endearing.  It is a thought-provoking study of human nature.  But on stage, it felt like it wasn’t being given its due, purely for the complications I expressed above.

In order to keep the runtime down, the plot had to be smashed together so that at the end of the play, Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane, and then suddenly Lady Catherine arrives to yell at Lizzie, and then, again suddenly, Darcy appears to propose to Lizzie.  I felt sorry for those in the theatre who weren’t familiar with the story, because the whirlwind of twists and turns must have been hard for them to keep straight.  I felt even sorrier for myself because dear Fitzwilliam, one of my favorites, was cut out entirely.  Without him, it wasn’t made clear at all how Lizzie found out that it was Darcy who convinced Bingley that Jane didn’t care for him.

I don’t make these criticisms because I love the novel too much to give adaptations a chance: I acknowledge that any adaptation must be viewed as separate from the novel, and that directorial decisions must be made based on what works best for the format of the adaptation.  But in the end, I think what works best for Pride and Prejudice is the screen, where we can see closeups of the actor’s faces as they react to one another; where directors can use computers to flit from one scene to another, allowing them to stuff much more in without the hindrance of having to manually move a set; where even a conversation in a noisy ballroom can be heard with perfect clarity.

That being said, there were a lot of things I did like about the production: The acting was smooth and polished, the sets were realistic and moved mechanically, the costumes were lovely (although the similar colors of the women’s dresses made it difficult to pick out main characters).  The interpretation was clean, but standard: it stayed true to Austen’s period–all empire waists and bowing–which was appropriate for a 200th anniversary (of the novel’s publication) performance, but a little disappointing in its lack of freshness.

And of course, now we must come to the main event: Vincent Kartheiser as Mr. Darcy.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

As I said, the acting throughout the play was solid, with Suzanne Warmanen as Mrs. Bennet being a standout, especially when comic relief was needed.  Kartheiser was good as Mr. Darcy.  Good, but not great.  The official “celebrity cast member” of the production, a great deal of pressure was put upon him to bring something new and interesting to a role which has been played so many times before, and by so many different men: Colin Firth, Mathew Macfadyen, Laurence Olivier …  An interview Kartheiser gave in the Minneapolis Star Tribune tells us that Kartheiser was more than aware of the pressure, and planned to “bring some mischief to the role” (7/7/13 issue).  Though there were some funny bits near the end–when Lizzie and Darcy finally had their passionate kiss they quickly broke away in embarrassment–much of Darcy’s stage time was spent stiffly.  This would be acceptable if Darcy were, indeed, just another rich snob.  But we know he isn’t.  He is merely so painfully self-conscious that he doesn’t know how to comfortably interact in social situations, doesn’t know how to translate his high morality into personable conversation.  I would have thought Kartheiser’s performance more on par with what is revealed about Darcy’s character at the end of the play if he had let more flashes of truth show through throughout.  Once more, the staged version of the story failed where a screen version might have succeeded: Kartheiser certainly could have more successfully expressed the subtleties of the character had he had the option of a close-up.

In conclusion, despite my long list of criticisms, and despite the lack of childhood hero sightings, Pride and Prejudice at the Guthrie was a show worth seeing if you’re an Austen fan.  Or, heck, a Mad Men fan.

One more thing I must tell you is that Alexis Bledel did not make an appearance at the Guthrie last Tuesday evening.  There were a few false alarms: “Wait!  That girl has medium length brown hair!  It must be her!”  There was actually a lookup of Ms. Bledel’s height on mobile IMDB in order to spot her with elevated ease.  No comment on the level of creepiness there.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

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