Review: In 'Persuasion,' how to lose lovers and influence people
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Review: In 'Persuasion,' how to lose lovers and influence people
Rajesh Bose, left, and Arielle Yoder, right in “Persuasion,” in New York, Sept. 21, 2021. The Bedlam theater company returns with another adaptation of Jane Austen, but the production misses all of the source material’s subtle wit. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- Never entrust the fate of your love life to a nosy family friend. In a hokey stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” by the Bedlam theater company, a Victorian woman learns the hard way that some decisions are best made on one’s own.

That woman, Anne Elliott (Arielle Yoder), is bright and accomplished but, at the ripe old age of 27, shamefully unmarried. Why the life of spinsterhood? When Anne was 19 and engaged to Frederick Wentworth (Rajesh Bose), her godmother and family convinced her that marrying him, a young naval officer with no connections to speak of, would be a mistake. Several years later, she is still being pushed around — or, worse, totally disregarded — by her narcissistic father, Sir Walter (Randolph Curtis Rand); her obnoxious sisters, Elizabeth (Nandita Shenoy) and Mary (Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy); and her overbearing godmother, Lady Russell (Annabel Capper).

When Wentworth returns as a celebrated captain with a fortune, he and Anne have a prickly reunion, and the gulf between them isn’t helped by a parade of flirtatious acquaintances, including a pair of precocious sisters (Claire Hsu and Caroline Grogan); a Byron-loving sailor named Benwick (also played by Shenoy); and an aggressively charming cousin (Jamie Smithson).

The usual Austen players are there, but “Persuasion,” Austen’s last completed novel, is more than an amalgamation of tropes and themes from her earlier works; it’s a natural progression from “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Anne is older and more mature than the heroes of those previous books. The family tree and webs of relationships are more complex, and Austen’s critique of the societal pressures that suffocated women, along with the class prejudice, is especially searing.

Which is why this usually inventive theater company’s latest take on a classic, which opened Tuesday night at the Connelly Theater, is so disappointing. The production, directed by Eric Tucker, aims to be a snappy modern-age rom-com, yet fails to be anything but an unremarkable, cheesy staging of the text. And in her script, Sarah Rose Kearns shows a misunderstanding of the delicacies in Austen’s text.

Kearns bogs down her script with the various relationships — from the brother-in-law who briefly courted an elder sister before marrying her younger sibling, to the friend of a friend who becomes engaged to a sister’s sister-in-law, if you can decipher that — making the characters’ links to one another difficult to parse. (A handy family tree is included on the last page of the digital program, which isn’t much help during the actual performance.) And the running time of over 2 1/2 hours feels entirely too long.

Then there are the attempts at comedy. Austen’s wit — her subtly sharp barbs in the dialogue and her satirical humor — is overshadowed in this production, which relies on exaggerated emotional outbursts, hammy slapstick, quick shifts of cadence and large, clowning gestures.

Perhaps the larger problem is that Bedlam tries to deliver another imaginative production, as it has with so many shows in the past, but ends up serving up a weak facsimile of the company’s best works. “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Crucible,” “The Seagull” — time and time again in the past several years, Bedlam has taken classic works and injected them with contemporary energy. Tucker, who also directed those three productions, has a compellingly peculiar ear for rhythm and eye for movement; much of the thrill of his direction comes with his almost manic shifts from traditional theatrics to brazenly modern moments that are stylized and self-aware.

“Persuasion” struggles to maintain a steady hold on its source material, yet still tries to incorporate those same quirky theatrical flourishes. Flashbacks to the moment Wentworth proposed to Anne end with his melodramatic “death” from the rejection, which results in black balloons falling from above. At one point, Wentworth inexplicably runs around with a giant prop sheep. And characters step up to two microphones downstage to provide sound effects: birds chirping, rain falling, an unnecessarily long and awkward series of sighs and grunts of a married couple having sex.

Many of the actors, too, appear to have lost their way in the production’s indelicate camp. Yodel’s performance ends and begins with Anne as the headstrong independent woman 21st-century audiences should enjoy, which means that Anne’s journey from a meek, yielding young woman toward a confident and self-possessed one becomes muted, virtually inexistent.

Bose struggles in a faltering English accent to convey both the desperate love and penetrating heartbreak that Wentworth experiences, and lacks chemistry with Yodel. Capper is well cast as the sassy Lady Russell but underused in the role. And Fauntleroy, as Anne’s helplessly immature sister, and Yonatan Gebeyehu, as several secondary characters, including an amorous viscountess, go large and cartoony in a way that seems to miss the subtler humor already in the way these figures were written by Austen.

At least Bedlam’s low-budget inventiveness comes across in the scenic design (John McDermott); the Connelly Theater stage is drab and relatively bare, but one item, like a portrait or a rolling piano, along with a shuffling of metal folding chairs, transforms the setting without much ado.

“Persuasion” is a noun that implies choices — ways of doing, ways of seeing — and what voices seem to whisper in your head as you decide one thing or another. Art too, then, is essentially an act of persuasion. So at the end of “Persuasion,” I asked myself, does this piece of art work? I remain unconvinced.

'Persuasion' Through Oct. 31 at the Connelly Theater, New York City; Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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