The reputation of Lady Susan has preceded her. Though recently widowed, Susan’s latest indiscretions in London have earned her the distinction of “most accomplished coquette in England.”
So when Susan (Brynn Lewallen) shows up in the country for a surprise stay with her brother-in-law Charles (Joseph Bearor) and his very annoyed wife Catherine (Hannah Daley), she’s followed by a parade of people. Almost immediately, the widow’s charm and self-serving modus operandi upend everything in “Lady Susan,” and – since this is Jane Austen – everyone complains, snipes, and rhapsodizes about it with glorious wit.
A deliciously verbal comedy of manners, “Jane Austen’s Lady Susan” is onstage now at Good Theater, in a world premiere production of Rob Urbinati’s deft adaptation. Brian P. Allen and James Hoban direct an arch and vivacious production, featuring a sharp and smartly dressed ensemble. It is a romp of a return for Good Theater, after its long pandemic hiatus.
The house that Susan descends upon, in Steve Underwood’s evocative set design, is laden with floral-upholstered furniture and huge pastoral landscapes in gilt frames. Home décor is Catherine’s realm, and she’s proud and uppity about the furnishings. Susan, dressed in a rather unmournful black jacket, white lace, and black tulle, struts about them with faux deference. Her posture clearly suggests that her very presence here reveals the banality of her sister-in-law’s tastes.
There are also the matters of a family castle, which Susan wants to claim, and of a husband, which Susan will do anything to secure.
Catherine’s pique at all of this is constant, so it’s to Daley’s immense credit that she finds ways to keep it fresh. Petulant and priggish, her terrifically crabby Catherine makes an art of rolled eyes, pursed lips, and withering slow blinks.
As her exhaustingly good-natured husband, Bearor perfectly embodies a certain kind of Englishness, with Charles’s dogged cheer, earnest smile, wagging head, and stubborn loyalty to his dead brother’s wife.
Ill-matched as the couple is, Daley and Bearor lend them a genuine intimacy, which we see Susan strain almost immediately. Before long, Catherine’s barely-veiled insults are fully bare.
Austen wrote the story of “Lady Susan” in the form of letters, and Urbinati has done a fine job of adapting it for in-person bitchery. The banter becomes rompier and rompier as more and more people show up, and the ensemble settles in for it with excellent pacing and cohesion.
First to arrive is Catherine’s brother Reginald (the excellent Jay Mack, in green velvet), fully primed to eat out of Susan’s hand. In Mack’s luxuriant performance, Reginald gazes and jests in overtly sensual curiosity, drapes himself over the loveseat behind Susan, and begs to hear more about her “dalliances.” When Susan flirtatiously taps his hand, he raises it into the air, beholding the back of his palm as if it’s begun to glow. All this sends Catherine further yet toward her boiling point, and when she reproaches him, he blows her an insouciant kiss.
Things get even more complicated with the arrival of the floppy, exuberantly dim-witted Sir James (Nathan Gregory, with terrific shaggy comedy), whom Susan has induced to cast off his fiancée and flounce after her.
Finally, London society matron Alicia Johnson (Amy Roche) shows up with Susan’s daughter Frederica (Halsey Redman, taut and understated, in great counterpoint to the comedic roles). Frederica is a tall, straight, sullen young woman who has escaped from the boarding school her mother dumped her in, and she is not having any of Susan’s aggressive schemes to set her up with a husband. Let the romantic quadrilaterals begin!
We have a special treat of character acting in the marvelous Good Theater veteran Roche. Heavily rouged and clearly enjoying herself immensely, Roche delivers a series of beautifully paced, epically supercilious monologues. These touch variously on Alicia’s complexion, Reginald’s superb physique (which she praises in about 12 different formulations), and how abhorrent she finds both the country and Catherine’s interior design.
Roche’s Alicia is a monument of imperious self-regard; I could listen to her all night.
And in Lewallen’s precise hands, Susan is musical and knowing, with an enunciation that shows how much she considers and relishes each riposte. Her Susan is also a consummate performer. As she leans and pivots, playing her angles and manipulating everyone, we see that she’s always acting. Given how well she’s internalized this m.o., it would be affecting to see a little more of a contrast in her attitude once the plot finally brings Susan around to more moral behavior.
Which it does, with only minor punishment for the widow’s scheming self-interest. Harmony is restored and all parties get something they deserve. As our own nights get longer, Good Theater delivers us this buoyant, witty comedy, and its reminder to be kind. It’s just what we need.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Face your fears
• If you haven’t had your fill of Halloween, head a bit south to Portsmouth, New Hampshire: through Nov. 13 the Players’ Ring and the Firehouse Center for the Arts present a world premiere adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” billed as “nightmarish.” Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test are required. FMI: www.playersring.org.
• The next show up at Portland Stage Company, “Searching for Mr. Moon,” opens this week. Written by Richard Topol and Willy Holzman, it tells the story of how Topol finds new father figures in his father-in-law, composer Lukas Foss, and in himself. Accompanied by Foss’s music, the show runs on stage through Nov. 21 and online Nov. 17-Dec. 5. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test are required. FMI: www.portlandstage.org.
• On the darker yet still brilliantly entertaining side of musical theater, “Cabaret” opens this week at Portland Players in South Portland. Sally and the Kit-Kat Girls will be on stage Nov. 5-21, and masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test are required. FMI: https://www.portlandplayers.org/.
— Megan Grumbling