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Theater Review: “Pride and Prejudice” at Round House Theatre

The English literary love story gets an enjoyable staging in this current adaptation.

Kate Cook (Elizabeth Bennet), Heather Haney (Jane Bennet), Alice Gibson (Kitty Bennet), Laura Rocklyn (Lydia Bennet), and Betsy Rosen (Mary Bennet) in Round House Theatre’s production of “Pride and Prejudice.” Photograph by Danisha Crosby

☆☆☆ out of four

Romantic comedy rule number one: When your male and female leads can’t stand each other from the get-go, chances are the sparring stars are well on their way to happily ever after. And so it is with Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, now playing at Round House Theatre. Austen’s beloved tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, first published in 1813, can certainly count itself among the original sources of said rule, and in director Blake Robison’s production, audiences understand why the formula has endured for so long—it still works. But, as with so many tales of not-such-opposites-after-all attracting, it somehow feels like we’ve seen it all before.

In the case of Bennet and Darcy, perhaps you have. The actors in the roles, Kate Cook and Michael Brusasco, are reprising the parts they took on in Robinson’s 2010 production of the show at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, though with a supporting cast of DC regulars, this spirited version is undoubtedly its own. Catherine Flye’s flittering Mrs. Bennet is everything the pushy, excitable mother of five unmarried daughters should be—namely, very funny and universally embarrassing. As her unamused husband, Mr. Bennet, Rick Foucheux is a master of smirking one-liners, and when he’s not earning some of the production’s biggest laughs, the Bennet family patriarch offers depth in his subtle and sweet relationship with his favorite daughter, Elizabeth. Other scene stealers, like the velvet-voiced James Konicek (yes, he does voiceover work) as the Bennets’ pompous cousin Mr. Collins, are introduced throughout the crowded story, too.

Fitting an entire Jane Austen novel into something an audience can absorb in one sitting—albeit a two hour and 45 minute sitting with a 15-minute intermission—isn’t easy. Here, it works remarkably smoothly. Though there are a considerable number of characters, backstories, and delightfully English estates such as Netherfield and Pemberley to keep straight, the story shines through: Two wealthy, unmarried men come to town in Regency England, to the delight of anxious Mrs. Bennet and her five daughters. The eldest, Jane (a glowing Heather Haney), quickly attracts the attention of Mr. Bingley (Clinton Brandhagen). His arrogant, brooding buddy Mr. Darcy is less impressed, as is headstrong Elizabeth with Darcy. The two share a rocky introduction, setting into motion a still-relatable story of class, romantic rituals, reputation, prejudice, social pressures, and one of the best-known will-they-or-won’t-they love stories of all time.

Dark and dashing, Brusasco naturally embodies Mr. Darcy and brings well-controlled emotion to the character. Like Elizabeth, the audience gets a bad first impression of him, but Brusasco conveys quite a bit with glances, pauses, and silence. Cook, too, is consistently appealing, though for playing one of literature’s wittiest and sharpest heroines, at times she could use a bit more spark. The couple’s chemistry takes some building (Elizabeth’s relationship with her father feels more organic initially), but by the play’s end, the pair live up to the material’s hype.

The action unfolds within a clever mechanical toy box of a set, complete with a winding key. Walls and windows (in time with characters’ feelings) shutter and bend like origami on scenic designer Narelle Sissons’s set, a kind of carousel—a choice that’s interesting at first, then seamlessly blends into the background.

With such complex relationships and social commentary to explore, the whole of the original novel’s layered drama doesn’t fit inside such a neat package, but fortunately the essence of the story remains. When the book was assigned in high school English class, it might have seemed stuffy and like a lot to take in—but ultimately the story is a classic for a reason, and the experience was well worth our time. The same sentiment applies here.

Pride and Prejudice is at Round House Theatre in Bethesda through December 31. Tickets ($10 to $60) are available through Round House’s Web site.