Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is both a Jane Austen story and not. It’s a sequel to Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice, and the product of an interesting collaboration between well-known contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson (The Revolutionists) and Margot Melcon, a dramaturge who says she never wrote a play before this one. Miss Bennet tells a catty Christmas comedy tale about the last unmarried Bennet sister Mary (Lauren Modica) who was often wisecracking in the background of Austen’s book, easily overlooked. You may remember most of the Bennet sisters were engaged by the end of Pride and Prejudice, and only Mary was still single—but it’s also okay if you don’t. Gunderson and Melcon built a lot of clues into the script about who hates whom and for what reasons.
Because Miss Bennett is essentially fanfiction I found myself falling into some embarrassing “um, actually”-ing of the portrayal of Austen’s characters. Would Elizabeth (Cindy Im) be so diplomatic? Did Mr. Darcy (Isaac Lamb) stop being broody after he started getting laid?
But it’s also easy to see why Miss Bennet was one of 2018’s most produced plays. It’s funny, witty, and shows real love for the characters. Mr. Darcy and Charles Bingley (Charles Grant) get a modern bromance update to their roles that feels fresh and includes them—not just as husbands but as meddling family. Mary is wry, but relatable. And when she meets her nerdy match in Lord de Bourgh (Joshua J. Weinstein), Miss Bennet treads on the time-honored, real, dorky warmth of a new crush’s uncool missteps.
The part of the initial antagonist, youngest Bennet sister Lydia (Kailey Rhodes), must be one of those roles that actors secretly vie for behind the scenes. She’s not the lead, but she has so much fun up there. Rhodes doesn’t run, she leaps. She doesn’t turn, she twirls. And for one moment she holds herself in a doorway at nearly a 90-degree angle to photogenically embody pure mischief.
Speaking of doors, Miss Bennet has one of my favorite set designs in recent memory. All the action takes place in a single room, but that room has an almost Yasujir Ozu depth of frame, leading back through rows of bookcases. A large fir tree stands near the center of the stage and it’s treated as an oddity—Elizabeth’s indoor tree decoration is her only shining peculiarity. I came to appreciate the tree as a metaphorical contrast to the customs of Austen’s landed gentry, whose fancy airs feel so silly to us now. Pianofortes are out, indoor trees are in, and nerd love endures.