Notwithstanding the mostly laudable TV and film adaptations, as well as a number of serviceable stage adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” it seems only fair that Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte have a crack at Jane Austen’s most popular Regency romance. On the plus side, Monte’s choice to preserve the social deportment, elegance, and rigidity of the era is noteworthy, as is her faith in a mostly youthful cast able to deploy the wittily brittle text.
The designers have also commendably addressed the visuals with just enough trappings to reduce our impatience with the inordinate number of scene changes. Some scenes are so brief as to rival the time of the scene change. Although the audience is consigned to stay the three and one-half hour course with the same determination that motivates five marriageable young ladies as they proceed to ensnare and secure husbands, it will be committed only to the extent that it matters to them.
For surely, the question of whether we should be enthralled and enraptured by such a transparent story of graces, manners, and machinations among the twits and swains of 19th century English middle class society will be individually decided. Notwithstanding Austen’s gift for gab and the amount of it that is needed to propel very little action, tedium is occasionally held at bay by Monte’s fluid staging. Ballroom scenes, in which the rather large cast goes through the motions of dances that are presumably variations on the gavotte and minuet, are charming, as is the presence and perseverance of actors drawn into the entirely frivolous affair.
Whether or not you are drawn into the Austen oeuvre or Monte’s respectful if plodding, permutation of it, you can admire the set design by Michael Schweikardt. A huge framed beige countryside landscape drawn in the Asian style serves as a permanent backdrop. French windows that glide, period-appropriate parlor furnishings that can be re-arranged or carried off with dispatch, and even the obligatory chandeliers that mercifully come down slowly enough not to threaten anyone’s life, are deployed with finesse.
The emphasis is on the acting and the aggressive charm with which the company asserts its posturing and twittering. There is every reason to suspect that love is in the air from the outset. Foremost is the disapproval that Elizabeth Bennet (Victoria Mack) shows toward the aloof and disdainful Mr. Darcy (Marcus Dean Fuller). They maintain these fixed attitudes and characteristics for most of the play, leaving one to look elsewhere for more unpredictable delights and diversions. Luckily Monte, with a little help from Austen, gives equal time to an array of fleetingly amusing peripheral characters, many of whom are members, extended and otherwise, of the Bennet family. Suffice it to say that misunderstandings, miscalculations, and misalliances keep popping up to affect their future and their fortunes.
The uniquely comical Monique Fowler, who scored so high earlier in the season in “The Rivals,” gets another opportunity to validate our most ingrained fears about recklessly pushy overbearing mothers. But she doesn’t in this case steal the thunder from Edmond Genest, as Mr. Bennet who, with self-assured authority, shows both love for his girls and an indefatigable sense of propriety. It takes a bit of concentration to keep tabs on Elizabeth’s four other sisters and their wooers, each of whom are respectively decorative, delightful, and handsome.
More entertainingly considered are Megan Irene Davis’ haughty and pervasively indignant Miss de Bourgh and Michael Stewart Allen, as the obnoxious Mr. Collins, the matrimony-obsessed wheeling dealing cousin and heir to the Bennet estate. At the time, women could not inherit property. So all those daughters had to find husbands with property or end up destitute and/or deserted. Costume designer Kim Gill dresses the women mostly in beige (apparently the color du jour) and provides the appropriate tight britches and jackets for the dashing heroes and smart red coats for the young suitors in the militia. “Pride and Prejudice” is full of lovely First Impressions, the novel’s original title and also the title of the ill-fated 1959 musical version as adapted by Abe Burrows. But it is only in the final minutes of the play that those early impressions begin to resurface and almost convince us, as it undoubtedly will members of the Jane Austen Society, that it was time well spent.
“Pride and Prejudice,” Tuesdays through Sundays, through November 19, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Ave, Madison, located on the campus of Drew University. $28 to $50. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.