Twisted Sisters

Don't worry about what to wear to Dallas Theater Center's season opener, Pride and Prejudice. By the last scene, your outfit will be out of style.

At least it feels that way. Three hours is a long sit at any play. Three hours of the quaint jibber-jabber of Jane Austen's jittery Bennet sisters is like being trapped at a marathon tea party at a table full of talkative old-maid aunts. All you want when you finally get free is a stiff martini and some porn—anything to shake off the dust of 1813.

We can't blame new DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty for leading off the season at Dallas' most prestigious playhouse with such a tedious wheeze. He had nothing to do with it, having just reported for duty September 4. Moriarty, an import from the East Coast, replaces Richard Hamburger, who ran DTC for 15 years. As the new guy, Moriarty won't be able to put his imprint on this theater company until next season, DTC's last in Frank Lloyd Wright's upside-down layer cake on Turtle Creek.

What Moriarty has really been hired to do is ensure that DTC makes whizbang use of the fancy new arts complex now being built downtown, into which this theater will relocate in 2009. The 11-story cube-shaped 600-seater designed by Rem Koolhaas will bear a heck of a name: The Dallas Theater Center at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts' Grand Plaza.

Theater vs. theatre goes to the heart of everything that's off about Pride and Prejudice, a production brimming with Yale-trained American actors (and a few locals to whom DTC begrudgingly tosses the bones of smaller roles) who struggle with British accents and attitudes. Kathleen McElfresh, the dark-haired Yalie playing the plucky lead, Elizabeth Bennet, slips in and out of her ponsy locutions like an impressionable exchange student who's spent a year abroad and picked up some annoying affectations. She sometimes sounds a little bit English, but mostly she's a good ol' Amurrican gal playing dress-up. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," says Elizabeth in the famous opening line of the book and play. The actress pronounces it "for-chin." Which is unfortunate.

Actor David Matranga, the Yalie playing the brooding Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth's love interest (after a fashion), not only doesn't look the part—he's short and unpleasantly greasy—he sounds about as English as a vendor at a Renaissance Faire. Imagine Joey Tribbiani from Friends striding around in tight britches saying "vexed" and "vouchsafed." Now make him not so cute and funny and you've got Matranga's staunchly unsexy, awkwardly voiced Mr. Darcy.

Who sounds the most English in this large cast? Why, golly gee, it's the Dallas contingent. James Crawford, a roguishly handsome SMU drama prof with an affinity for accents, plays two supporting roles and is tee-riff in both of them. Lovely Jessica D. Turner turns up as a sweetly bitchy Miss Bingley, one of the Bennet girls' chief detractors, and her vowels never waver. Chamblee Ferguson provides blessed comic relief as the belching, snoring Mr. Hurst, then changes his hair and his air to go convincingly uppa-class as Colonel Fitzhugh.

Making his DTC debut is tall, blond and gorgeous young SMU drama grad Chad Hugghins (and isn't that name made for a Disney contract?). He played Hamlet at the campus' Greer Garson Theatre last year and here excels as the scoundrel Mr. Wickham, who ditches Elizabeth and absconds with her younger sibling. If only Hugghins had been cast as Mr. Darcy...three hours of that, yessirreebob. But SMU isn't Yale, and Pride and Prejudice director Stan Wojewodski Jr. is dean of the You-Know-Where School of You-Know-What. Young Hugghins out-acts the Yalies for sure. He also talks the fah-fah just like a real Brit.

So does Ashley Smith, another Pony drama prof. He gives the loosest and most entertaining performance in Pride as the bowing, scraping minister, Mr. Collins, who comes off as an underclass nerd trying to sound like a nob.

However they say the words, there are simply too many of them to say in this Pride and Prejudice to make it work effectively on the stage. The 400-plus pages of Austen's novel detail overlapping feuds and romances, the lives of dozens of characters and their visits to scores of locations in and around the Bennets' country estate. A sprawling story like this—a family trying to fob off five daughters onto wealthy husbands—is perfect for film and there've been not a few. The onscreen P&Ps include a black and white 1940 MGM version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier (adapted by Aldous Huxley); half a dozen TV miniseries, including a fine run on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre and 1995's dishy A&E series starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy; 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary with Firth again as a modern-day Darcy; a fancy-dressed 2005 remake starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen; the Bollywood-style Bride and Prejudice (also 2005) and others.

DTC's adaptation is by Catherine Sheehy, Yale School of Drama's resident dramaturg (a sort of writing coach for playwrights). She must love her some Jane Austen, otherwise she'd have had the sense to cut out an extraneous Bennet sis or two (as other stage versions have done), trimmed some of the snooty blah-blah and let us all go home an hour earlier.

Instead, Sheehy keeps almost everything as Austen intended, the slow walk-and-talks around gardens, the intricate reels danced at summer balls, the endless letter-reading by characters opening envelopes sent by footmen from other characters. Toward the end of the play, a bunch of them actually read letters while they're dancing at a fancy ball, not an easy trick on the sharply raked set plonked on the Kalita Humphreys Theater's revolving stage by scenic designer John Coyne.

At first Coyne's set seems like a stunning use of the space. Turned one way, it's the Bennets' drawing room, turned another it's a ballroom or a hillside. 'Round and 'round it goes, looking like a wide, curved skateboard ramp with steps on either side. Visually interesting, sure, but the thing must be hell to work on. The actors have to gallop quickly over the high, slanted stage as scenes blend one to the next. The men in tight pants and tall boots, the women in long dresses and ballet slippers, all go through quite a workout just traveling over hill and dale. At the preview performance reviewed, Kathleen McElfresh, skittering to the upper level, caught her dress on a step and fell forward so hard the audience let out a collective gasp. The show went on and so did the actress, no doubt with some massaging and bandaging done later.

As the first production of the season, Pride and Prejudice stumbles badly. It might be a tough sell too. Better, shorter versions exist on DVD, ones with actual British actors and not Yalies for whom the words do not trip lightly off the tongue. Unless you're getting extra credit for English class, why bother?

Sometimes one wonderful performance is enough to make a so-so production so, so much fun. In the silly musical comedy Nunsense: A-Men!, now at the Richardson Theatre Centre, it's the delightfully sunny presence of actor Robert Rushin, a tall, lanky senior at Plano Senior High School, that turns a small show into a huge smilefest.

The kid's adorable, with a toothy grin that won't quit. He can sing, tap-dance and hit a punch line with killer timing. He's doing it dressed in a wimple and to-the-floor habit as novitiate "Sister Leo," one of five all-drag members of the "Little Sisters of Hoboken."

This installment in the nutty Nunsense series has the sisters (Rushin, Mike Fulk, Jeff Kinman, Greg Pugh, Stephen-Shayle Rhodes) putting on a fund-raiser talent show. The jokes are dumb ("How do you get down from a duck?" "I dunno, how'd you get up on her in the first place?"). The musical numbers are either corny or overly sentimental. Over-acting isn't possible as the men in black dresses spoof Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard and fan dancer Sally Rand.

Directed by Rachael Lindley, choreographed to a frazzle by Nan Gammon, with musical direction by Adam C. Wright, Nunsense A-Men! is a no-budget frolic with one breakout performance worth catching. Who knows? Maybe Robert Rushin will star one day on the big new stage at the Dallas Theater Center. First, though, he has to get into Yale.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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