'Vanity Fair' at the Pearl: Imaginative, smart, with feminist edge

VANITYFAIR
Cast of "Vanity Fair" at the Pearl Theatre in New York.

How extraordinary to see, in two days, two excellent  theatrical  adaptations of two gigantic 19th-century novels. Even more extraordinary, they were both terrific —enjoyable, imaginative, thoroughly dramatic and, even better, true to their sources. EgoPo’s Anna, based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, was followed the very next day by Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in a marvelous production at the Pearl Theatre in New York.

Written by Kate Hamill, whose earlier adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility made me a fan, Vanity Fair, also starring Hamill, is a show of great charm, with a sharpened feminist edge and a lively sense of contemporary relevance. It is a book drenched in irony as is the show: Hamill concludes her script with the Manager’s parting words to us: “The sale, the con, the dance, the show, the fight, the grief, the lust, the love — it never ceases, it never stops, it never can! We want what we want and nothing can stop us! Welcome to Vanity Fair!”

Becky Sharp (Kate Hamill), our manipulative, greedy, smart-as-a-whip heroine, is an orphan, a charity case at a posh school for girls where she and Amelia (Joey Parsons) become best friends. In endlessly complicated plots, the two girls are sought after and eventually find husbands, although one man is hardly enough for ambitious, social-climbing Becky who won’t resist the attentions of a wealthy Marquis. While Amelia is very very good, Becky is, by her world’s standards, very very bad; most everyone else—especially us—are in the “hypocritical middle.” It is a play that warns against judging others—a particularly apt cautionary tale in our age of shaming. And we are reminded that with “enough money you can be very bad indeed.”

Except for the two women, the rest of the wildly accomplished cast play multiple roles: Zachary Fine, Brad Heberlee, Tom O’Keefe, Ryan Quinn, and Debargo Sanyal; they all shift from character to character and gender to gender, with high-precision timing, underscored byHamill’s signature use of furniture that zooms around on wheels.  

Directed by Eric Tucker with a featherlight touch and a lively tempo, it becomes all the more remarkable that we are, from time to time, caught up in the plot, moved by events, worried about the characters’ fortunes, and eager to know what happens next — much like the pleasures ofreading a nearly 800-page novel.


Vanity Fair. Pearl Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St. NYC. Extended through May 14.