By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
“She’s kind of a mean girl,” a woman said to me at intermission. She sure is: self-important, snobbish, arrogant and smug, a cold fish who fears intimacy. Emma Woodhouse, the central character in Emma, is Jane Austen’s least likable heroine, an inveterate matchmaker who meddles in people’s lives and is invariably wrong about everybody. But she wins us over eventually by acknowledging her faults and resolving to be a mean girl no more.
The basic Austen plot involves an English village, several young unmarried women, several unmarried men, a vicar, some crochety relatives, and various fortunes being hunted. Although her novels have a psychological depth and subtlety conveyed through language, a play depends on dialogue, not narrative, and Michael Bloom’s adaptation turns Emma into three hours of gossip and furniture moving. Genre-jumping is always a challenge, and rarely a success.
The play is oddly cast, in that the minor characters are not only the most interesting and amusing but are played by the most watchable actors: Charlotte Northeast, Peter DeLaurier, Jake Blouch. Emma herself, played by Lauren Sowa, seems colorless, and Mr. Knightley is played by Harry Smith as sweet and well-meaning rather than elegant and authoritative; he looks far too young for the role.
This is a comedy of excessively good manners, dreadful Regency clothes and much hand-kissing. In Act One nearly everyone seems to be speaking too slowly, laboring fake English accents. The dance scenes in Act Two, when the tempo picks up, are probably the best, allowing characters to reveal their hearts silently. Director Kathryn MacMillan creates some theatrical fun by briefly staging Emma’s fantasies, and then dismissing them, as Emma says, in effect, nah, that won’t work.
Jane Austen said she wrote on “a little bit of ivory (two Inches wide) on which I work with so fine a Brush.” The stage at Lantern is hardly bigger, but they are working with a very broad brush indeed.
Lantern Theatre at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 10th & Ludlow. Through Nov. 3
Tickets $30-38. Information: 215-829-0395 or www.lanterntheatre.org