Entertainment » Theatre

Vanity Fair

by Maya Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Apr 4, 2017
Vanity Fair

Money and morality. A game that's merely a gamble, in which its players switch fortunes at the flip of a coin -- that's the seduction and intrigue of "Vanity Fair," William Thackeray's seminal work about schemers and social climbers, now appearing onstage at The Pearl Theatre in this new adaptation from Kate Hamill.

For those who missed out on Thackeray's book in their high school reading list, "Vanity Fair" follows the lives of two women in England during the Napoleonic Wars. Becky Sharpe, a calculating woman of low birth, sets her sights on reaching the top of the social ladder while her friend Amelia Sedley, a "proper woman" in the most traditional sense (of means, birth, and well-repute), aims to live a comfortable life with the man she loves. When both women take gambles in their love lives and otherwise, they both end up on the losing side of this vanity fair -- at least until their next gamble.

Hamill, known for her extraordinary stage adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility," takes on another literary classic with the same zeal, again taking a central role in the proceedings, this time as protagonist Becky Sharpe. Hamill borrows some of the same tactics she utilized in "Sense and Sensibility" for "Vanity Fair," though unfortunately, the results aren't as successful.

The production, sparely staged with a few pieces of furniture (including one prominently featured rolling seat) and a rotating curtain, aims to create the same kind of kinetic energy with which "Sense and Sensibility" made its mark.

Here, too, the small cast of seven acts out the roles of the multiple characters in the book, with only the two women leads keeping to their roles as Becky and Amelia. The production also breaks into a few very brief dance moments featuring songs plucked from the world of contemporary pop music: Yes, in this production, amidst the dramatic twists and turns of the plot, our characters pause to dance to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Queen Bee's "Single Ladies."

But as much as the production attempts to energize itself with movement, it fails to do so. Instead, the movements of the actors seem at times superfluous and distracting, and the dances -- a slow-motion Macarena, for example -- are simply ill-fit to the production. Ironically, despite its best efforts, the play drags at moments, and part of the fault lies in the writing of the play itself. Hamill's adaptation is unfortunately overwritten, the most stand-out example being the addition of a wry, world-weary, fourth-wall-breaking "manager" whose sole function is to explain away the play.

That's the main problem in this adaptation: the amount of time it spends telling its audience what to and what not to think of its characters, the assumed point being that contemporary viewers will find themselves too distanced from a play about desperate, scheming characters in 19th century England. That is, of course, false, at least from my perspective, but the characters spend so much time defending their actions and defending the play's relevance that the audience certainly isn't given any occasion to think much else.

Despite the script's problems, Hamill is still a delight to watch as Becky Sharpe, abounding with all the snark and mischief the protagonist requires. Zachary Fine, as the manager, is all show and charm in a nonetheless unnecessary role, but playfully indulges in the silliness of his portrayal of Miss Matilda Crawley.

Joey Parsons presents the sometimes naïve Amelia Sedley with delicacy, while Brad Heberlee is most notable as her awkward, lovable oaf of a brother, Jos Sedley. Ryan Quinn's William Dobbin matches Jos in his endearing social awkwardness and presents us with one of the few wholly sympathetic characters in the play, while Tom O'Keefe delivers the "honest villain" of a match for Becky, Rawdon Crawley.

As George Osborne, Debargo Sanyal delivers in a wavering British accent not so much a character as he does a moving punchline, and beyond that, a trope: the spoiled, selfish man-child who, in this production, seems to be channeling his inner Abercrombie & Fitch model, preening, strutting and posing across the stage for laughs.

And there are definitely laughs to be had in "Vanity Fair," but they don't always come easily, particularly when they only arrive at the expense of an old woman's digestive issues -- yes, there are old-fashioned fart jokes and exaggerated drama and gesturing, which, along with the impressive display of lights studding the walls of the set, all point to the garish drama of "Vanity Fair."

A garish drama of desires and fortunes -- that's what "Vanity Fair" is, as Thackeray wrote it, and it requires no justification or defense or explanation. Unfortunately, that's the one thing this production missed.

"Vanity Fair" runs through May 27 at The Pearl Theatre, 555 W. 42nd St. in New York City. For information and tickets, call 212-563-9261 or visit pearltheatre.org.

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