‘Persuasion’ review - an Austen adaptation that revels in awkwardness

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    Date:
    September 29, 2021
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    Persuasion has none of the opulence you’d expect from Regency England — the walls and floor are nearly bare, making the characters, in full period costume, feel like they’ve been plucked out of their era and dropped into a dingy basement. It’s not the most romantic setting for an adaptation of a novel known for its love story. This particular one sees Anne Elliot hoping to rekindle her love with one Frederick Wentworth, who has the trappings of a war hero and is the most eligible bachelor in town. Unfortunately, eight years before, a family friend advised her to break off her engagement with him due to his lesser social standing at the time. Oh, the irony.

    But romance isn’t the focus of this Persuasion. The production by Bedlam, which presented Austen's Sense and Sensibility in 2017, emphasizes that there’s nothing endearing about your family, in this case the Elliots and their in-laws the Musgroves, judging your every romantic prospect and social interaction. Awkwardness is the dominant feeling onstage, as no one has any privacy and nothing better to do than observe each other making faux pas while vainly hoping no one sees their own. The result is a hilarious and relatable adaptation for those of us nervously readjusting back to in-person socializing. 

    Sarah Rose Kearns’s script keeps Austen’s period dialogue, so the staging, under direction by Eric Tucker, achieves the comic effect. In some scenes set at the loud and decorum-challenged Musgroves’ estate, an actor (often Randolph Curtis Rand, in a subtly comic performance) holds a tree branch or a painting. We assume the set budget was low and we’re supposed to ignore them. And then, as the other characters’ conversation gets interesting, they casually peer over their prop as though eavesdropping.

    If they’re caught listening, or if someone realizes they said something odd, there’s a plethora of ways Tucker has them diffuse the situation, to varying degrees of success. Physical comedy. Too-loud laughing. Singing. Spotlighting another character as they do something weirder. Not every element works in the pastiche chaos of Persuasion — in the ending dance sequence, for example, social graces suddenly no longer seem to matter as the characters prance around, and the awkward conceit fall through. However, the production’s deliberate unwieldiness until that point allows viewers to justify most choices. It helps that every actor has impeccable comic timing — Jamie Smithson, Yonatan Gebeyehu, and Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, all as various characters, stand out in this regard. Caroline Grogan and Claire Hsu, as Anne’s sisters-in-law, are feisty foils to Arielle Yoder’s (Anne) subdued grace, and Rajesh Bose as Wentworth is suave and assured in the midst of social uncomfortability.

    Unexpectedly, interspersed into Persuasion’s larger-than-life comedy are moments that dabble in horror, particularly when Anne internally reflects on her feelings for Wentworth. (Those of us with first- or secondhand embarrassment in awkward situations might find these parts most relatable.) Inside her mind, haunting violins and ticking noises creep up, and sometimes balloons and confetti appear as Anne recalls the birthday of hers when he proposed. Each time, the stage is left illuminated only by one spotlight. A fellow cast member holds it each time, reminding the audience that Anne is constantly at the mercy of their judgment. These moments add another layer to the theme of social unsurety throughout Persuasion that works well in tandem with the comic bits. Sometimes it's easy to laugh off an awkward social interaction or ignore your family's nosy questions, but sometimes being under the social microscope is downright frightening. It’s in these moments that the audience members may find themselves grateful just to laugh at the characters’ stumblings through social and romantic life and forget about their own for a while.

    Persuasion is running at the Connelly Theater through October 31. Get tickets to Persuasion on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Persuasion (Photo by Ashley Garrett)