A diverting second yuletide Austen effort from Marin Theatre Company
Epistolary complications, empire-waist dresses, scheming female relatives and romance both sparked and thwarted by pride have returned to Marin Theatre Company, where two years ago these qualities made for the highlight of the holiday theater season.
After the 2016 triumph of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” playwriting team Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have reunited for the world premiere of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley.” Both are sequels to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” but “The Wickhams” takes place concurrently with “Miss Bennet,” only now in the kitchen among the servants instead of in one of the grand rooms upstairs. (And in Wilson Chin’s set design, the grandeur of this mere scullery, complete with beam ceiling, cannily whets your imagination for what the rest of the house must look like.)
If this second effort, which opened Sunday, Nov. 25, doesn’t kindle quite the same magic as the first, there’s still plenty of merriness to be had. It’s just days before the holiday at Pemberley, the sweeping mansion of Mr. Darcy (David Everett Moore) and Lizzy (Melissa Ortiz), his new wife, and a horde of Lizzy’s family is about to swarm them.
For the master and mistress, that means absorbing the silly, gauche behavior of youngest sister Lydia (Madeline Rouverol), who ignominiously eloped with George Wickham, Mr. Darcy’s sworn enemy, in “Pride and Prejudice.”
For servants Mrs. Reynolds (Jennie Brick), Brian (August Browning) and Cassie (Neiry Rojo), that at first means exponentially multiplied chores. Then it also means concealing Wickham (Kenny Toll) from the rest of the household after he stumbles into the kitchen late at night, drunk and with a black eye.
Lots of huffing and puffing about housework bogs down the script, as do Wickham’s shallow harangues that he’s no cur but the victim of a stratified caste system. Complications proliferate, without provoking the showdowns the plot would seem to logically require. The playwrights devote much time to the exposition of Regency England’s divorce norms and a scandalous letter whose contents the show takes pains not to reveal too early, only to have the surprise be not very surprising at all.
That means two parallel plots — Cassie and Brian’s budding affection, and Lydia and Wickham’s crumbling one — prove too much to fully develop in 100 minutes including intermission time. But when the script gives characters time to tease or charm each other, the result is impossible to resist. Watch as Brian sets Cassie up at an invention he’s fashioned just for her: a portable, tabletop reading desk, with a tilted surface for her book.
Unfolding a blanket for her, he places her teacup and candlestick on a little shelf built just for that purpose. If that’s not love, what is?
Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s zippy direction does much to whittle down the script’s extra padding, and her cast members find warm, human motivations for all the lines about laundry and table setting. As all-knowing housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds, Brick clucks like a hen and honks like a goose, and she has one of the best lines in the script: “Praise slows me down.” As Lydia, Rouverol is so hyperactive and buoyant she’s liable to bubble out of her own skin. As the newish mistress of Pemberley, Melissa Ortiz makes for a laconic, dry-humored Lizzy, the perfect comic foil to Lydia.
Though “The Wickhams” might not be in the same league as “Miss Bennet,” Marin Theatre Company has made Gunderson-and-Melcon Austen riffs into a welcome holiday tradition — and hopefully 2018 won’t be the last of it.
— Lily Janiak, San Francisco Chronicle Read full review