Kate Hamill‘s loose adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s largely unclassifiable but mostly satirical 1848 tome Vanity Fair opens with a self-aware framing device. The cast, playing anonymous figures in the amoral, carnivalesque “vanity fair” that is supposed to be a shorthand for all worldly vices temptations, entreats the audience to enjoy the tale of orphaned Becky Sharp (Rebekah Brockman). She’s smart and underestimated, consigned to a lowly station, and forced to rely on her cunning to get what she wants out of a life that was never supposed to be hers to decide.
As such, it’s an appealing story of female agency in early-19th-century England, and there are some sneaky contemporary references thrown in, like a nod to being a “nasty woman.”
“I shall win this game or die trying,” Becky says early on, bringing to mind 50 Cent. If another character were on fire, she channels Betty Davis vis-a-vis Joan Crawford: “I wouldn’t spit on her to put it out.” Who wouldn’t want to play along gamely with all this?
The thing is, though, Hamill’s Becky isn’t a beguiling charmer trying to claw her way up in a society. She’s alternately hard-charging and bitter, at times a Mean Girl gleefully showing off her Burn Book. By the end of Vanity Fair (the novel), which unspools over two decades from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the early 1830s, Sharp has hardened into a probable criminal, doing anything she can to secure an income to live off of. Thackeray left her ambiguous in order to challenge his readers’ notions of what constituted the bounds of acceptability, aiming to send up their judgmental moralizing.
There is no such ambiguity, or even character development, with this Becky. She’s too overbearing to be sympathetic, too caustic to be crafty, and too irascible to be seductive. She isn’t grasping; she’s grasping at being grasping. When she arrives at Sir Pitt’s house hoping to be employed as a governess, she impatiently announces herself as “Becky Goddamn Sharp!” Bellowed at top volume, that isn’t in line with her temperament, remotely plausible, or even funny.
A lot of the jokes aren’t funny, in fact. There are some fat jokes, some fart jokes, a phallic reference to a pepper. A dinner-party scene that revolves around a hot curry dish could be hilarious if Jessica Stone‘s direction weren’t so rushed. The novel’s tension — between being genuinely good, adhering to socially constructed standards of propriety, and doing whatever it takes to get out of the gutter — is there, and the circumstances it throws the characters in yield occasional howlers. But the main issue with Vanity Fair (the play) is that its ratio of telling to showing is completely askew. At times, the expository dialogue is so ham-fisted that you almost expect someone to hold up a sign at one point that reads, “LAUGHTER APPLAUSE.” Oh wait, they actually do.
To be fair, Thackeray’s novel is more than 600 pages long, so a faithful retelling was never within the realm of possibility. But some of the creative license is so out there that you wonder why Hamill decided to use the novel at all, and not just write a farcical drawing room comedy all her own. For example, the character of Jos Sedley (Vincent Randazzo) is depicted as an awkward man-baby. (He’s referred to as an “ignorant lout,” and he pouts like Francis, the bratty, bike-stealing neighbor in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.) But Jos isn’t an idiot in the book. He’s a foppish, pompous rich kid, the kind of person who spends all afternoon dithering over which cigarette case to buy without any conception of how privileged he really is — and a walking embodiment of vanity that Hamill seems to have no use for. Meanwhile, Jos’ father (Adam Magill) could be a Bill Hader SNL character called “19th-century British Guy.” Emmy Sedley (Maribel Martinez) is some combination of misfortunate and dull-witted, but you never really get a firm grip on her. Is Becky her friend? Her frenemy? Her co-conspirator? Her tormentor?
With that said, there are several sparks in this play full of flirting, unwise marriages, and drunken remorse. A song about cruising in a park is bawdy enough to be in a Thrillpeddlers show (R.I.P.) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan‘s cross-gender take on George Osborne is zippy and fun.While most actors jump among multiple roles, a handful of minor characters are cleverly “played” by paper dolls with hinged limbs that evoke Thackeray’s own engravings throughout the novel.
Above all, Bay Area stage veteran’s Dan Hiatt‘s Miss Mathilda Crawley — who’s partly Quentin Crisp playing Queen Victoria with a purple wig snatched from Mrs. Slocombe on Are You Being Served? and mostly a send-up of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess — is the heart of Vanity Fair. Querying about Becky’s artfully concealed parentage, she deadpans, “You did not peck out of an egg.” Hiatt’s got the lightest comic touch of all, and you eventually conclude that the creators of Downton Abbey came up with the surname Crawley from Thackeray.
You yearn for Mathilda never to leave the stage, as she has such an easy, delightfully bitchy repartee with Becky — but then it’s all over in a flash, as most scenes are, sometimes with bits of song that seem to exist only to everyone cover to change costumes. That it all passes by so quickly is a testament to the various actors’ tight blocking and their ability to transition from one character to the next, but the Sedleys’ plunge into bankruptcy and the end of the war are both so blindingly quick as to be non-credible.
“Remember, Rebecca, never be too good or too bad,” Mathilda tells Becky at one point. The world will try to pull you hither and yon, but it’s “better to stay with us in the hypocritical middle.” The viewer is left hungering for more of that hypocrisy and less of that middle.
Vanity Fair, through May 12, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $15-$110, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org