Theatre review: Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

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Theatre review: Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

From left, back row first: Michael Kaye (Lord Arthur de Bourgh), Timothy Voytek (Mr. Bingley), Nori T. Schmidt (Elizabeth Darcy) and Micah Lee (Mr. Darcy) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

From left, back row first: Michael Kaye (Lord Arthur de Bourgh), Timothy Voytek (Mr. Bingley), Nori T. Schmidt (Elizabeth Darcy) and Micah Lee (Mr. Darcy) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

From left, back row first: Michael Kaye (Lord Arthur de Bourgh), Timothy Voytek (Mr. Bingley), Nori T. Schmidt (Elizabeth Darcy) and Micah Lee (Mr. Darcy) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

From left, back row first: Michael Kaye (Lord Arthur de Bourgh), Timothy Voytek (Mr. Bingley), Nori T. Schmidt (Elizabeth Darcy) and Micah Lee (Mr. Darcy) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

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The Long Beach Playhouse is gifting us an early holiday treat through Nov. 30 that Jane Austen fans will particularly enjoy. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley picks up two years after Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet has become Mrs. Darcy, mistress of the Pemberley estate. But it’s the blossoming of intellectual middle sister Mary that’s the focus this time in a very smart, funny and beautifully acted sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

It’s a few days before Christmas 1815 and Lizzie (Nori T. Schmidt) has put up a Christmas tree at the estate, following a German custom not common in Britain at the time, bemusing her visitors– sisters Mary (Gabi Jones) and the very pregnant Jane (Briana Christine), plus Jane’s husband Mr. Bingley (Timothy Voytek) and Mr. Darcy’s (Micah Lee) last-minute additional guest, Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Michael Kaye).

Mary’s growth in talent and personality in the years between the novel and this sequel seems to surprise everyone as much as the indoor tree. She voraciously reads, freely expresses her particular opinions, desires to see the world and plays piano like a virtuoso. But she is not married.

Enter Arthur, similarly intellectual, sweet and downright geeky with Mary. It’s very cute between them as they discuss books, maps and the choices Arthur’s newly inherited wealth and property afford him after the recent passing of Aunt Catherine, whom no one seems to miss. Darcy and Bingley attempt to direct Arthur in expressing his feelings while Lizzie and Jane have fun pushing Mary toward him.

But then the Bennets’ flirty and conniving younger sister, Lydia Wickham (Alicia Samuel) arrives and confusion ensues between the would-be lovers, mostly having to do with mixed up letters. And that’s not all! Catherine’s snooty daughter Anne de Bourgh (Sabrina Sonner) soon swoops in as well, dropping a bombshell that ends Act I. The second act changes to a more serious and honest reconciliation of motives, but is just as intricate and entertaining as the first.

Sustaining all the drama is excellent acting, especially among the four sisters (sans youngest sister Kitty, who is in London). The best thing about them is that they seem like sisters– pushing, hushing and sometimes snapping at each other even as they hug and reminisce. And the actresses who play them capture each sister’s individual personality with every word, gesture and inflection. The men are similarly attuned to their characters, especially Lee as the refined Darcy, and Kaye’s imposing physical presence works well with Arthur’s awkward bumbling.

Phyllis B. Gitlin’s expert direction keeps the action continuously flowing and the deliveries pitch-perfect. Mary’s tone is especially crucial to get right– neither mousy in her glasses nor hysterical in expressing her beliefs, but comfortable and confident in her thinking and abilities– and Jones nails the part impressively with natural strength and ease.

Period costumes by Christina Bayer are cut in delightful fabrics and patterns, especially the women’s dresses and Darcy’s elegant suits (though Lizzie’s bright green dress seems an anomaly). And the sitting-room set is well designed by David Scaglione– including a library of books and elegant furniture– with appropriate lighting (Robert Richardson) spotlighting characters and classical music bridging scenes (Allison Mamann).

Even if you don’t know Austen’s original characters, they are so distinctive in Miss Bennet that their interactions are unfailingly enjoyable to watch and their relationships easy to understand. Indeed, because the characters drive the production, it never lags and culminates in surprisingly thoughtful and satisfying resolutions. What better way to usher in the holidays?

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Nov. 30, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.