“This is not a moral place,” proclaims a master of ceremonies at the outset of the Pearl Theatre Company’s energetic Vanity Fair. “Nor is it often a merry one,” he adds, “for all of its pageantry and noise.”
Spectators familiar with Victorian fiction will recognize these words (spoken by the versatile Zachary Fine) as the opening of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847–48 serialized “novel without a hero.” This new stage adaptation by Kate Hamill includes ample noise and pageantry (as Fine’s pre-curtain speech promises), though designers Sandra Goldmark (sets) and Valerie Therese Bart (costumes) make the pageant amusingly tawdry. Contrary to Fine’s prediction, the Pearl’s Vanity Fair is frequently merry. Here—to an even greater degree than in Thackeray’s original—high-spirited tone is at odds with the grim circumstances of the plot.
Reducing Vanity Fair to a single evening of theater is no easy task. Thackeray’s ribald chronicle of anti-heroine Becky Sharp is a narrative of Byzantine complexity (more than 900 pages in the Oxford World Classics edition). Devotees of the book are bound to be disappointed by what’s left out. Readers who treasure their mind’s-eye view of Becky and her circle will take issue with what they behold when the word has been made flesh. Only playgoers coming to the material without prior exposure are likely to be fully satisfied by what’s on view here.
Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was a long-running success for Bedlam, the New York City theater company founded by Eric Tucker and Andrus Nichols in 2012. Tucker, noted for directing small casts in agitato-tempo interpretations of classic texts, is overseeing the Pearl’s Vanity Fair; and this production has the manic quality of his recent five-actor Midsummer Night’s Dream. (That production began at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and was brought to Manhattan by the Pearl).
In his gargantuan novel, Thackeray (1811–1863) gazes back on Regency England and Romantic-era Europe from his perch in Victorian London. Becky (played at the Pearl by Hamill), a woman without means or social cachet in a rigidly stratified culture, represents a parvenu assault on 19th-century social institutions that accelerated during the Victorian era. The men surrounding Becky and her friend Amelia (Joey Parsons) reflect a shifting notion of masculinity, as the martial machismo of the Napoleonic Wars edged out the foppish model of upper-class manliness passed down from the Restoration and the 18th century.
The Pearl’s seven-member cast is a well-oiled ensemble, channeling an ever-changing parade of Thackeray’s characters. All the actors (with the exception of Hamill and Parsons, who play only one role each) are adept at transforming themselves with dexterous changes of voice, posture, and mien, as well as judicious little adjustments in costume. The cast’s indefatigable roistering (always within the bounds of appropriate acting technique) conjures a sizable amount of the novel’s darkly frolicsome mayhem, sometimes to enervating effect. (Some spectators will find the show a long three hours, despite its unending pep.)
Hamill’s interpretation is less flinty and rapacious (and more sympathetic) than the Becky of the novel. Parsons transforms Amelia’s blinkered virtue, pathetically amusing in the novel, into something touchingly believable on stage.
Fine plays a number of characters, including Becky’s lascivious patron Lord Steyne; but he’ll be remembered primarily for his over-the-top portrayal of elderly Miss Matilda Crawley, a woman of incalculable self-regard and relentlessly challenged lower-digestive system (occasioning an explosion of scatological humor). Brad Heberlee, poignant as Waffles in the Pearl’s 2014 Uncle Vanya and as David Hyde Pierce’s best friend in Adam Bock’s A Life earlier this season, demonstrates quicksilver versatility in an array of roles, male and female, ranging from bold and virile to anemic and prissy.
The principal weakness of this Vanity Fair is its stylistic indecisiveness. Act I has the light, capricious tone of operetta (though without an abundance of song), punctuated by occasional touches of Monty Python. The frequent interpolation of anachronistic material (including songs by Michael Jackson and Beyoncé) evokes the free-and-easy sensibility of the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve celebration of Die Fledermaus.
In the second act, things turn Brechtian, with the action interrupted by alienating devices, such as actors addressing the audience directly, either in character or in an omniscient authorial voice. In the final scenes, Hamill, as writer and leading actress, transforms Becky into a Regency Mother Courage, exiled to Europe and dispensing salty wisdom.
Hamill and Tucker have invested this Vanity Fair with theatrical gusto, a sense of contemporary relevance, and a full measure of merriment. If 21st-century irony, the prevailing voice of Bedlam, drowns out Thackeray’s dryly satiric take on Regency England, that’s unlikely to matter to most playgoers. What will matter is that a good time—or, rather, a very merry time—is being had on both sides of the footlights.
Vanity Fair plays through May 27 at The Pearl (555 West 42nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No evening performances on April 16 and 30 or May 7 and 14. For tickets, call (212) 563-9261 or visit www.pearltheatre.org.