Persuasion Gets the Comic Treatment From Off-Broadway's Most Innovative Company
Jane Austen's last novel bubbles to life with satire and delicious absurdity at the Connelly Theater.
"She must have a mind of her own," says Captain Frederick Wentworth when he's asked about the kind of woman he would marry. Many men in 19th-century England might see independent thought in a woman as a liability, but then Wentworth is already in love with Anne Elliot, a highly intelligent woman who was persuaded to end her engagement with him eight years before — and has now come to think she's made a terrible mistake.
That is the romantic entanglement at the heart of Sarah Rose Kearns's faithful, insightful, and thoroughly delightful new adaptation of Austen's last and, I would argue, most relatable novel, Persuasion. Fortunately, Kearns's script has come into the hands of director Eric Tucker, whose theater company Bedlam has produced some of the most innovative and entertaining off-Broadway productions in the past nine years. Tucker and his troupe took on Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, in what became one of 2014's best off-Broadway productions, and Persuasion looks to be a worthy successor.
Kearns begins things slightly out of the novel's order of events by introducing Wentworth (Rajesh Bose) and Anne (an elegantly reserved Arielle Yoder) with the proposal scene that took place eight years ago in order to ground us in the main action before the play whisks us in all sorts of directions with its panoply of two dozen or so characters. We soon meet the austere Lady Russell (Annabel Capper) who discourages Anne from making a disadvantageous choice in Wentworth, a poor sailor with no money or family to recommend him. Anne regretfully turns Wentworth down.
Eight years later, a successful, well-off Captain Wentworth is back in town after his sister's husband, Admiral Croft (a hilariously chortling Yonatan Gebeyehu), rents the estate of Anne's father, the vain Sir Walter (Randolph Curtis Rand), who has run into debt and must remove to Bath temporarily to save money. Barely anyone seems to remember or even know that Wentworth and Anne were ever a thing, least of all Anne's unmarried elder sister, Elizabeth (Nandita Shenoy), or her younger, perpetually "ill" sister, Mary Musgrove (Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy), who constantly complains of being neglected by Anne and Mary's otherwise-engaged husband, Charles (Jamie Smithson). A trip to Lyme by several of the group leads to intrigue after one of Charles's flighty sisters, Louisa (Claire Hsu), tries to leap through the air into Wentworth's arms and is injured. Does Wentworth's great concern for Louisa's wellbeing indicate he's in love with her? Or might he be attracted to her babbling sister, Henrietta (Caroline Grogan)? Anne will not know until a chance conversation about the faithfulness of men and women reveals the answer.
You don't have to be an astute reader of Jane Austen's novels to have a good idea of how it will all turn out. Though Tucker directs the final scene with a poignancy that brings tears to the eyes, the real appeal of this show is the fun we have getting there — and the journey is hilarious. In usual Bedlam fashion, Tucker tosses theatrical surprises into the action at every turn, drawing us briefly out of the story and reminding us that theater magic exists beyond good plots and good acting.
Gebeyehu frequently bangs out a tune on the onstage piano, Hsu sings a beautiful aria, and the whole brilliant cast joins in a festive dance (amusing choreography by Susannah Millonzi). There's also an unexpected onstage balloon drop, Gebeyehu's insanely funny portrayal of Lady Dalrymple, and the various sounds that the actors make as the show's Foley artists, including bird calls (enhanced by Jane Shaw's clear sound design) and perhaps of one the funniest "sex scenes" you'll ever hear in an Austen adaptation (Jane never wrote such a thing).
To reveal more would ruin the surprises that Tucker and his team have in store. Aside from the director's playfulness, the rest of the creatives have conjured a world that carries us away for a remarkably swift two and a half hours. Charlotte Palmer-Lane's costume design reminds us of Anne's middle-class status (despite her father's ostentatious attire) and helps us keep track of characters when actors change from one to the next (all but Bose and Yoder play two or more roles). Les Dickert's lighting effectively delineates various locations on the Connelly Theater's modest stage, where John McDermott has assembled a bare-bones yet symbolic set: What's up with that big stuffed sheep that has been standing on a ledge in the back and presiding over everything the whole time?
Maybe the answer has something to do with why Bedlam thought now is a good time to stage this production. Because at its core, Austen's Persuasion is about how easily we are swayed by the words of others, and how men still try to shepherd the bodies and destinies of women. Perhaps the Wentworths of the world, those who value women with minds of their own, are rarer today than we'd like to think. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Persuasion marks the long-awaited return of one of New York's most talented companies.