William Thackeray's novel comes to the stage in a carnivalesque production.
An enormous red curtain hangs down around the middle of the Pearl Theatre's stage at the opening of Vanity Fair, Kate Hamill's adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's best-known novel. It's a grand and thrilling tease. What are we about to see? A vaudeville show? A circus? A little of both? Either would suit director Eric Tucker, who is known to downtown audiences for his playful stagecraft in Bedlam productions like Hamlet, Saint Joan, and most recently, Sense and Sensibility (also adapted by Hamill). Tucker has his seven actors play a couple dozen characters among them, and they do it with aplomb, but Thackeray's delicious wit and satirical side-winks often get lost in this ambitious, sometimes unfocused translation to the stage.
"This is Vanity Fair," cries the Stage Manager (an ebullient Zachary Fine), entering through the red curtain like a carnival barker, "and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one." Yet there is a great deal of merriment at the play's beginning as the Manager quips and jokes with the audience before we're introduced to the orphan Becky Sharp (the devilishly winsome Hamill), a sharp-tongued, sharp-witted young woman who knows what she wants — money — and who'll do whatever is necessary to get it.
Educated at the Pinkerton School in the early 1800s in England alongside the kind and virtuous Amelia Sedley (Joey Parsons), Becky devises a scheme to ensnare Amelia's bashful brother, Jos (Brad Heberlee), before taking a position as governess in the home of the coarse-natured Sir Pitt Crawley (also Heberlee). After failing to catch Jos, she sets her sights on Sir Crawley's son Rawdon (Tom O'Keefe). Meanwhile, the innocent Amelia has spurned the honest William Dobbin (Ryan Quinn) and naively given her heart to the caddish dandy George Osborne (Debargo Sanyal). Things take a dark turn when the men are called into battle to fight against Napoleon's forces, and Becky finds her prosperous circumstances suddenly upended, forcing her to make decisions that call her status as a society lady into question.
Hamill has done a great job paring down Thackeray's long novel, taking modest liberties here and there with the plot. Valérie Thérèse Bart's costumes (all the actors don old-fashioned dress except the Manager, who wears business casual) and Sandra Goldmark's set (with sundry pieces of old furniture scattered about) get us in the mood to see a period piece — one with the flair of a fair.
Happily, that's what we get in the play's opening scenes, with festive strings of light bulbs adorning the stage's walls and raucous music coming from an onstage piano while the actors sing and cavort. Then things take a strange turn when the cast breaks into the zombie dance from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as the song plays loudly. Presumably, this lighthearted interlude is meant to bring the action into the present while getting a laugh. But the stunt perplexes more than it entertains or illuminates the plot. Unfortunately, Tucker injects a similar anachronism when, about a half hour later, the actors start rotating their hands to the tune of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." We know Becky and Amelia are after husbands, but we don't need Beyoncé to make their husband-hunting relevant.
More straightforward storytelling, with lighter comedic touches, might have better served this almost three-hour-long production. The actors never fail to impress as they race about the stage and deliver some truly inspired moments. Of special note is Fine, as the Manager, who speaks to the audience with a gentle menace but is uproariously funny as the flatulent Matilda Crawley. Bedlam regular O'Keefe also dominates the stage with his irresistible humor, and Parsons' Amelia has a subdued charm that contrasts with Sanyal's hilariously flamboyant George.
But more often than not, the hit-and-miss jokes let the air out of this colorful balloon of a show, and the second act becomes downright dour with its focus on war and on Hamill's message: "I was trying to play the game," Becky says to us. "So what if I gambled badly, so what if I sometimes lost?...You don't get to judge me!" She's right. When it comes to Becky's mistakes, we don't get to judge her. When it comes to the play's, however, we do.