The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 27, $59-$99
Kate Hamill follows up her inventive, extremely popular reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, a Bedlam production that ran at the Gym at Judson for nearly ten months, with another creative marvel, a twenty-first-century take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, which follows two very different young English women as they graduate from an exclusive girls school and head out into proper society during the Napoleonic Wars. “There are no morals here,” the manager (Zachary Fine), a kind of ringmaster for this anything-goes circus, tells the audience. Standing in front of the six other members of the cast, who are arranged not unlike a police lineup, he adds, “This is Vanity Fair, and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one, for all of its pageantry and noise.” He then asks the cast, “What do you want?” The answers include “Honor,” “Glory,” “Redemption,” “Love,” “Respect,” and “Money” until the actress playing Becky Sharp (Hamill) declares, “Everything.” And she’s willing to do just about anything to get it. Becky is a devious orphan and “dirty little bird,” a “charity pupil” at the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies; meanwhile, her best friend, Emmy Sedley (Joey Parsons), has “the advantage of good birth,” Miss Pinkerton (Ryan Quinn) notes, “possessed of every requisite feminine skill.” Upon graduating, Emmy is set to marry Lt. George Osborne (Debargo Sanyal) and take her preordained prestigious place in Vanity Fair, even though it’s actually George’s best friend, Captain Dobbin (Quinn), who is madly in love with her; Becky, on the other hand, will become governess to the Crawley family, consisting of Sir Pitt Crawley (Brad Heberlee); his son, Lesser Pitt (Sanyal), who is prone to spouting Bible verses; his “better son,” proud soldier Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe); Sir Pitt’s young wife, Lady Rose (Quinn); and Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Fine), who is coming to visit. Determined to make something of her life, Becky sets her sights on Emmy’s dandy of a brother, Jos (Heberlee), whose brutally honest father (O’Keefe), who works on the Exchange, continuously belittles him. At the heart of all of the gossip, insinuation, intrigue, jockeying for inheritance, and love matches is Becky’s determination to improve her station. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she announces, and she means it.
Hamill, who has also adapted Pride and Prejudice for Bedlam, takes a decidedly feminist approach to Vanity Fair, which is particularly fitting in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, as discussion of the election rages on, rife with claims of sexism and misogyny and arguments over the socially acceptable character for an ambitious female. Too cold and calculating? Not likable enough? Can a woman be too . . . sharp? Hamill, who played Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, has streamlined Thackeray’s novel into a treatise on judging morality, no matter the era. She plays Becky, a role previously portrayed on film by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, and Reese Witherspoon, as a strong-minded “Nasty Woman” who believes she is capable of anything, that simply being poor and female is not going to hold her back from taking control of her life. Parsons (The Rivals, The Misanthrope) is terrific as the demure Emmy, who sticks by her friend despite their different views about the world. The five other actors all expertly play multiple roles, both male and female, blurring gender lines while also making fun of them. Sandra Goldmark’s set design, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes, and Seth Reiser’s lighting turns the Pearl Theatre into a welcoming carnival, with Fine (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Coriolanus) as a fabulous host, interacting with the audience, making sly faces at key plot points, and engaging in a separate little hat-tossing drama of his own. The night I saw the show, Fine playfully teased an older man in the front row, predicting he would be asleep in minutes. At the beginning of the second act, when it became apparent that the man and his wife weren’t coming back, Fine’s improvisation was among the funniest moments of the show, which has plenty of them, without losing focus on its central exploration of what we all want, and just how much it matters, or doesn’t, in the end.