There are great depths of emotion in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride & Prejudice,” but you wouldn’t know that from the production now on stage at the Guthrie Theater. Fortunately, the show has other virtues to recommend it.
Much buzz around the show has been generated by the casting of “Mad Men” star (and Minnesota native) Vincent Kartheiser as Mr. Darcy, the uptight love interest of free-spirited Elizabeth Bennet (Ashley Rose Montondo). Kartheiser acquits himself well, though his performance is in keeping with a production that turns Austen’s memorable characters into overblown stereotypes. Kartheiser’s Darcy is comically haughty, winning big laughs for his presumption to have the hand of any woman he chooses - including Elizabeth, who’s played by Montondo like a Disney princess: spunky, sexy and simple.
Under the helm of director Joe Dowling, this production plays so broadly that it verges on camp. That’s good for lots of laughs, and for the comprehensibility of a complicated plot that Simon Reade’s script trots through in a couple hours, the characters (sometimes literally) hopping from one setting to another on Alexander Dodge’s arcadian set. The set has two concentric wall segments that rotate to depict transitions between settings, and proceedings clip along so quickly that it seems like the walls hardly ever stand still.
Two hundred years on, it’s easy to laugh at the backwards attitudes of a time when men, no matter how vile or dim-witted they might be, held all the power in public and private life. This "Pride & Prejudice" goes for those laughs, and gets them, but at the expense of Austen’s subtle characterizations. Austen’s work continues to compel because her characters are so acutely human - especially her women, struggling to understand and pursue their own emotional needs in settings where those needs are often disregarded.
In this show, we get only a superficial depiction of those struggles. Elizabeth’s family of five girls also includes the Responsible One (Christine Weber), the Flirty One (Aeysha Kinnunen), the Forgotten Middle Child (Ivy Beech) and the Plain Bookish One (Thallis Santesteban). The family is headed by the Put-Upon Dad (Peter Thomson) and Marriage-Obsessed Mom (Suzanne Warmanen, channeling her previous Guthrie character Mrs. Fezziwig). There’s also the Ugly Cousin (Kris L. Nelson), who works for the Snooty Old Lady (Sally Wingert), who is not to be confused with the Snooty Young Lady (Anna Sundberg), who’s the sister of the Sexy Bachelor (Hugh Kennedy), who’s the BFF of the Sexy But Standoffish Bachelor With a Heart of Gold (Kartheiser), who’s the frenemy of the Dissolute Womanizer (Juan Rivera Lebron). Got that?
Fundamentally, the show works because Dowling knows where he’s going with the material, and the cast’s many members are each able to make strong impressions in their tightly demarcated time at center stage. Kinnunen, Santesteban, Warmanen, Nelson and Sundberg are especially efficient at winning chuckles with their polished comic characterizations.
By handling this material so broadly, though, Dowling torpedoes the story’s poignance. During the second-act heart-to-heart between Elizabeth and her father, there are big guffaws for Mr. Bennet’s cracks about his wife, but no tears for the tragedy of his loveless marriage. Similarly, when it comes time for Elizabeth to decide whether she wants to be with Darcy, we just haven’t seen enough complexity in the character for there to be any suspense - which means that the climactic scene, which left hardly a dry eye in the audiences for the 1995 British miniseries (the one with Colin Firth) or the 2005 film (the one with Keira Knightley), here plays about as quickly as a Vegas wedding. Do you? OK, do you? Great, everyone’s happy.