I went to 'Pride and Prejudice' at Center Stage to score points with my girlfriend and ended up liking it

City Paper's male and female writers look at Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" at Center Stage

Writing about Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is a chance to expound on Austen's sharp feminism, the importance of the heroine's strength and complexity, and Austen's still-relevant commentary on societal roles imposed on women. But pretty much everyone (or women who read, at the very least) recognizes this already. Today, the question surrounding the 1813 novel and its many adaptations has to do with the fact that they are marketed exclusively to women and therefore enjoyed almost exclusively by women, despite the novel's undisputed status as a classic.

That many men have been programmed to breed an instinctual aversion to all things pretty and romantic—both of which certainly describe "Pride and Prejudice"—is not a great mystery, but nonetheless a problem. It sucks for everyone: for women, because it's yet another piece of art created by women and about women that is taken seriously and appreciated mostly by women; for men because they're missing out by not reading it, or doing so only to please their female partners.

Center Stage's current production of "Pride and Prejudice" adapted by Christopher Baker and directed by Hana S. Sharif appeared to draw in many of these doting boyfriends and husbands, and at least one—namely, CP staffer Brandon Weigel—left with a new perspective. A few awkward elements such as clubby beats threaded over classical harpsichord and string melodies during dance scenes and melodramatic projections of the character's faces looming behind the actors (reminiscent of those kitschy 1970s floating-head photo portraits) fumbled in their attempt to make the experience aesthetically appealing to modern audiences, but ultimately did not tarnish an otherwise fresh production. The adaptation's focus on the novel's humor, from the sharp lead Elizabeth's (played by Kate Abbruzzese) biting sarcasm to the extreme man-thirst of her younger sister Lydia (Ali Rose Dachis) and authentic-yet-modern set design, with its use of projections to transport scenes and illustrate scenes from the book left out of Baker's adaptation, conjured Austen's words to an enchanting effect—and it did, for the most part, stick to the original text.

Under the threat of losing their family estate to their father's creepy cousin (Chris Bolan), the Bennet sisters are implored by their mother (Mary Jo Mecca) and by oppressive Georgian-era English custom to seek out wealthy husbands, regardless of their own self-interests, or die impoverished spinsters. With a dearth of men anywhere near as intelligent, charming, or witty as she is, Lizzie Bennet is pretty OK with that prospect, at least in theory. But then, potential suitor Mr. Darcy (A.J. Shively), who initially comes across as carelessly rude and deeply entrenched in classism, reveals himself to be more than the arrogant and socially awkward rich boy that he definitely is, forcing Lizzie to reconsider her convictions about herself, unappealing dudes, and the meaning of independence.

The overall strong cast exercised Austen's complex character writing to its full effect—standouts included Patricia Hodges as the spidery demon Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Maya Brettell as the youngest Bennet, and Abbruzzese as Lizzie. And yes, Mr. Darcy is more than sufficiently dreamy—he might give Colin Firth a run for his money, even if he never strips down to soak in a lake.

If its categorization as a romance deters stubborn men (and women) from opening themselves to "Pride and Prejudice," it's important to note that Austen rejects the qualities that tend to make romances so gross. The case might be made that Darcy's character set the romance genre up for the stupid and counterproductive tough-exterior-soft-interior male archetype, or that Lizzie overlooking Darcy's dickishness is emblematic of women settling for patriarchal buffoonery. But the story is not about a strong woman finding the perfect man (by the end of the story, Darcy is still in many ways an asshole) but a deeply flawed woman and an equally and similarly flawed man (surprise, they both harbor toxic levels of pride and prejudice) who find that they work well together. The story—and, most important, Austen's incisive rendering of human interaction and psychology—is realistic, a quality that is often assumed to be lacking in romance. So if stubborn dudes can just forget that Jane Austen and the entire romance genre have been wrongfully treated as dangerous or otherwise uninteresting girls-only territory, they might actually learn something. (Maura Callahan)

Because I'm a manly man who enjoys things like football and drinking beer, I'd never given much thought to pursuing the works of Jane Austen. I don't think I'm alone in this admittedly narrow-minded view—there's a sense most guys think of Austen's work, and all romance novels in general, as a thing for women (makes burping noise).

But that's pretty much why I jumped at the opportunity for press passes to Center Stage's production of Austen's 19th-century book "Pride and Prejudice": My girlfriend loves it. I knew nothing about the story beyond a few bits and pieces that had somehow seeped into the collective pop-culture conscious, but I knew for certain I could score some serious boyfriend points.

Turns out I had "Pride and Prejudice" all wrong. Due to my own ignorance, I was expecting some overwrought romance, with long, passionate soliloquies and flowery back-and-forths about the endless burning in the loins. The reality is an incredibly witty comedy that sends up high society's idea of courtship and how women should be treated, somewhat radical ideas for 1813. People have known about this for two centuries, but hey, this is news to me!

The story's protagonist, Lizzie Bennet, a sharp-tongued, intellectually sophisticated woman, is something of a revelation for two-centuries-old literature. She doesn't take shit, especially from cocky dudes who think she'll melt in their palms if they propose to her. She even jokes about her own future in spinsterdom—it's kind of like how women in 2015 have reclaimed being a crazy cat lady and made it something to aspire to. Better than giving yourself up to some dope just because he's got money and a penis.

Such notions buck certain societal constraints, including those placed by Lizzie's own mother, who is all too eager to marry all four of her daughters off to any guy with a country house and family fortune. Through some crazy inheritance deal, a self-righteous cousin of the Bennets stands to gain control of their estate when poppa Bennet (Anthony Newfield) kicks the bucket. So Mrs. Bennett is kinda looking out for her own interests and those of her daughters here. That's not such a bad thing in its own right, but her pushiness and flip-flopping on certain suitors points out just how absurd it is to care so much about status and class when seeking a partner—or, in this case, seeking partners for your children.

Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, attempts to treat his daughters more like actual human beings in between dashing off jokes about how miserably trapped he is in marriage, like an earlier version of the crotchety old grandpa from "Everybody Loves Raymond" or something. He seems to have their genuine interests at heart too, being much calmer about this inheritance deal than his wife. Then again, he has the benefit of being dead anyway if the whole thing goes through.

So with all this matrimony that has to go down, the story focuses a lot on courtship, social interactions, and the maneuvering that goes on before and after parties. "Did you see those two? Oh, they'll be married in no time." "I think this guy likes you!" etc. It's way less boring than that sounds, thanks to Austen's keenly written dialogue.

OK, can we talk about how the main romantic interest, Mr. Darcy, is kind of a dick? In the first half he doesn't dance during this big party—this was kind of frowned upon at the time, but as a fellow wallflower, I'm willing to give him a pass on this—and instead makes up for his shyness by puffing out his chest and constantly trying to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. He's a proto-hipster, the guy who sees you drinking a particular beer at a party and then insists on telling you about the history of the brewery and condescending to you about why the one he's drinking is better. Lizzie cuts him down to size—I like my Bud just fine, thank you very much--and it's great.

But Lizzie's rebuffs and wit are what make Mr. Darcy fall in love with her. And this is how he tells her: "I have fought against judgment, my family's expectation, inferiority of your birth, my rank. I will put them aside and ask you to end my agony . . . I love you. Most ardently. Please do me the honor of accepting my hand." So basically, "Everything about you is terrible, but I still managed to fall in love with you." That's some weak shit, bruh.

Then, Mr. Darcy sabotages a marriage between Lizzie's sister, Jane (Erin Neufer), and his friend Mr. Bingley (Josh Salt), because the Bennet family is kind of embarrassing and he just assumes, "Oh hey, Jane is kind of cheery all the time and not really that smart, so her only motivation is money and not true love."

Eventually (spoilers ahead for all the other dolts like me who have put off engaging with this story until now), he wins her affections by A. undoing what he did above and B. paying off some scumbag army officer (Asher Grodman) who has run off with another one of Lizzie's sisters. Really? This is the guy we're supposed to be rooting for?

My girlfriend tells me Mr. Darcy is a bit more nuanced in the book, and I'm sure I'll see this firsthand as we slog through the three-part, six-hour BBC miniseries, a fate I've set myself up for by writing this review, but one I'm not that upset about. (Brandon Weigel)

"Pride and Prejudice" runs through Oct. 11 at Center Stage. For more information, visit centerstage.org.

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