… all the world’s a vanity fair … 

This is a mind-expanding production of Vanity Fair.  It’s also funny, extravagant and visually fascinating.

The play, like the novel, focuses on a clearly motivated creature of her time, place and situation, Becky Sharp – a poor girl armed with smarts and wiles she’s determined to use to rise to the top in the affluent (sometimes) world of the British aristocracy.  Played by author Kate Hamill, you can’t take your eyes off Becky because her face fluidly – and humorously — reflects her moment to-moment assessment of precisely where her self-interest lies.

The play begins as the Manager (a vibrant and insinuating Zachary Fine) plunges through a red satin curtain and, like a barker at a fair, introduces us to this stylized, mordant satire of society – high and low.  Here it’s British society during the Napoleonic wars but it could be any time any place in “Vanity Fair” – a parable of the world, where innocence is adrift and most people will stoop to anything to get what they want – money, sex and high status – I think in that order.

Becky and her friend Amelia (Joey Parsons) are graduating finishing school where Becky’s been a charity case and thus exploited and badgered by a nasty school mistress — and readily giving it back in spades. Becky, slated to become a governess, a mighty humiliation for a finishing school girl, is invited to stay at Amelia’s fine house where she encounters her first rich man, Amelia’s  absurdly dull brother (Brad Heberlee). In no time she focuses her allure on him, and there’s the first of her seductions which make the play go round!

But oh fortune-hunters:  beware of second sons.  After many goings-on, Becky and her husband – she married Rawdon Crawley (Tom O’Keefe), second son of a family that employed her – are living a fashionable life but on what funds, since Rawdon was disinherited by his rich aunt (Zachary Fine, again), when she learned he married Becky. The couple is living the high life — on credit.  As the bills pile up, Becky’s solution is a liaison — “unconsummated” — with a rich marquis but her plan backfires. Rawdon, believing her unfaithful and unwilling to get him out of debtor’s prison, leaves her, and so begins her downward fall into degradation.  She redeems herself in a way, and that involves the parallel story of the good girl, Amelia, her losses, and her gains.

Thackeray framed the novel as a puppet play, a device that the playwright, like the novelist, exploits for its all-the-world’s-a-stage philosophical impact.  Becky is a complex character of mixed motives and a subtle mind.  The rest are exaggerated types, the domineering aristocratic father-of-the-family, the disappointing sad-sack son, the nasty rich aunt, the lecherous marquis, and so on.

The pace is hectic and parts are played broadly – recalling Thackeray’s conceit of the puppet show.  A lot’s always going on: the first act is somewhat disjointed and the second act has clearer dramatic force.  The actors play their type roles true-to-form, driving home with humor the ritual-like inevitabilities of the lust for wealth, sex and status.  Debargo Sanyal, playing several roles as most of the actors do, wittily works his jaw as if its attached to his face with a wooden hinge, exactly like a puppet!  It’s quite a feat, and heightens the stylistic strength of the production.

Miss Hamill has discovered the Berthold Brecht in Thackeray — in Vanity Fair’s frank display of social inequity, individual self-interest, hypocrisy, degradation and stubborn belief in innocence, colored by hyper-theatricality and ironic sense of inevitability.

Vanity Fair, directed by Eric Tucker, plays at the Pearl Theatre Co. on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 27, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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