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Blackfriars Theatre’s 'Christmas at Pemberley' is charming escapism 

click to enlarge Jess Ruby, Philip Detrick, Kit Prelewitz, Fiona Criddle, Devon Lemont, Sammi Cohen (foreground), and Carl Del Buono (background) in "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" at Blackfriars Theatre. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • Jess Ruby, Philip Detrick, Kit Prelewitz, Fiona Criddle, Devon Lemont, Sammi Cohen (foreground), and Carl Del Buono (background) in "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" at Blackfriars Theatre.
Any romance lover in want of fluffy, feel-good entertainment in December can choose from an abundance of silly holiday movies.

Blackfriars offers a more-upscale Christmas comfort option with its production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” directed by Lindsay Warren Baker and running through Dec. 31.

As the title suggests, the play is Jane Austen fan fiction, a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” written by Lauren Gunderson, one of the country’s most frequently produced living playwrights, and Margot Melcon.

Folks who found Netflix’s Regency-era soap opera “Bridgerton” overrated may want to sit this one out. However, for lovers of Jane Austen and light romantic comedies, “Miss Bennet” is the theatrical equivalent of a plate of frosted sugar cookies.

It’s been two years since Elizabeth Bennet married Mr. Darcy, and the iconic couple is now hosting the Bennet sisters for a Christmas party at their estate. A pregnant Jane arrives with her husband, Mr. Bingley. Both couples are in the midst of their happily ever after. As their younger sister Mary complains, they make marriage look easy.
click to enlarge Campbell McDade Clay as Mary Bennet and Phikhip Detrick as Arthur de Bourgh. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • Campbell McDade Clay as Mary Bennet and Phikhip Detrick as Arthur de Bourgh.
The love story cleverly centers on Mary, the middle Bennet sister. Many Jane Austen fans may aspire to be like Elizabeth Bennet, but modern-day readers sticking their nose in Regency novels are probably more like the bookish, independent Mary. A refreshingly awkward heroine, Mary is eccentric and ambitious, fixated on books about natural history and unafraid to say what’s on her mind: “I refuse to value politeness over honesty.”

She’s not looking for a husband, but then party guest Arthur de Bourgh admires her book of maps, and—you know where this is going. To avoid any doubt that they are fated to be mated, both are reading the same zoology book. The play proceeds through very gentle hijinks and misunderstandings, culminating in a festive happy ending.

The Pemberley estate set, designed by Allen Wright Shannon, is a warm and inviting place to spend two hours, decorated with a garland, a Christmas tree, pillars, a pianoforte, a bookcase, and candles.
click to enlarge Devon Lemont, Carl Del Buono, and Philip Detrick. - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • Devon Lemont, Carl Del Buono, and Philip Detrick.
The cast is equally warm and inviting. Carl Del Buono as Fitzwilliam Darcy and Devon Lemont as Charles Bingley bring to life the charismatic gentlemen that fans of “Pride and Prejudice” are expecting, while Jess Ruby as Elizabeth Darcy and Kit Prelewitz as Jane Bingley are poised and witty. The four are easily recognizable as the beloved characters, but deliver performances that are understated enough to let the central romantic couple be the main focus.

Campbell McDade Clay plays Mary as a woman confident in her intelligence and occasional awkwardness, while Philip Detrick plays Arthur de Bourgh with an amiable, frenetic energy. Both characters run the risk of coming across as pedantic, but are played with such earnestness that they are easy to root for.

If there’s a flaw to actors sticking so true to their archetypes, it’s the elimination of any possibility of suspense. The flirtatious Lydia Wickham, in a delightfully over-the-top performance by Fiona Criddle, throws herself at Arthur, while Anne de Bourgh, played with overbearing snobbery by Sammi Cohen, schemes to marry him. Both are so clearly wrong for him that there’s never any doubt how things will resolve.

However, the play isn’t seeking to surprise or challenge the audience. It’s looking to provide light entertainment and deliver the expected holiday tropes: decorating the Christmas tree, kissing under the mistletoe, and caroling.

The show succeeds by not taking itself too seriously. The humor is witty and occasionally tongue-in-cheek, often playing on references to “Pride and Prejudice.” For example, there’s a wry comment that Kitty, the fifth Bennet sister who never appears onstage, has been left out of the story entirely. The transition music between scenes sounds similar to the “Bridgerton” soundtrack, consisting of string arrangements of contemporary pop songs, including Christmas hits like “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Late in the show, Mary comments to Mr. Darcy that his attempt at setting her up with de Bourgh feels “too orchestrated to be real.” The same can be said for the play as a whole, and that’s what makes it a charming escape.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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