The MET's sprawling 'Pride and Prejudice' held together by strong performances

Someone whose opinion I respect recently commented that Jane Austen novels translate well to the screen, but not so much to the stage.

The well-acted Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of "Pride and Prejudice," adapted by Jon Jory, would seem to confirm that view. On one level, Jory’s script is decidedly cinematic, shifting from one short episode to the next. On another, he tries to make it work explicitly for the theater by allowing various characters to provide narration at different times and by calling for an essentially bare stage and a few pieces of furniture.

Director Karen Paisley, marshaling an enormous cast, tries to capitalize on Jory’s less-is-more approach. The bifurcated audience watches the show from opposite sides of the stage. The minimal scenery consists of platforms decorated with stately columns on each end of the playing area, where the audience is expected to exercise its imagination by picturing ballrooms, gardens and carriages that aren’t there.

One problem, as you might expect, is that the actors themselves are required to move furniture on and off the stage during scene transitions. Watching the players manually positioning chairs, tables and a small piano repeatedly makes it tough to sustain one’s suspension of disbelief.

Austen, the original chick-lit author, concerns herself with one overriding question in "Pride and Prejudice" -- who among the five Bennet sisters shall be married, and who shall not? She’s also interested in class divisions, which from our present-day perspective look like so much hair-splitting. The Bennet family is part of the landed gentry, but Elizabeth will move up in the world if she marries the aristocratic young Mr. Darcy, causing considerable consternation to the matriarch of his family.

While there’s plenty to quibble about in the MET production, the gifted actors exert their will on the material to give it some real punch. Even a cynical viewer -- I’m not mentioning any names -- may find himself rooting for Elizabeth before the show’s final fadeout.

The cast includes so many classically trained actors that the show is virtually a festival of crisp diction. Most of the performers know how to handle the language, which is full of tricky rhythms and is most often delivered rapidly, resulting in repeated flashes of wit that can sometimes fly by before you’ve had a chance to absorb it.

Central to the production’s limited success is Emily Peterson as Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s arc is what pulls us along and watching Peterson’s nuanced performance is a thrill. She’s the glue that holds together a show that occasionally threatens to collapse into chaos.

Fine comic performances are registered by Robert Gibby Brand and Cathy Wood as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. He’s a realist; she’s obsessed with getting their daughters married. Todd Carlton Lanker’s take on Mr. Darcy is carefully conceived and understated, and TJ Chasteen , as the absurdly loquacious Mr. Collins, is very broad and very funny.

Ayla Glass, Liz Clark Golson, Emily Shackelford and Kristin Janell Sullivan offer effective, distinct performances as the other Bennet sisters. Devon Barnes as Charlotte Lucas, Stefanie Wienecke as Caroline Bingley and Matt Leonard as Mr. Wickham do nice work. (Weinecke also composed the show’s incidental music.) Marilyn Lynch, one of our best character actresses, plays a housekeeper but threatens to steal the show as the condescending Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Alan Tilson’s eye-twinkling presence in multiple roles, as usual, gives the production some background texture. Bob Paisley shows up briefly as an army officer. Taylor St. John gives us an unfussy performance as Mr. Bingley. Lucas Piercy is unobtrusive in several small roles.

And if Karen Paisley’s performance isn’t as crisp as it should be as Mrs. Gardiner, I’m prepared to cut her some slack. She had her hands full directing 17 actors in a complicated script. The costumes, designed by Shannon Smith, are one of the stars of the show. These elegant Georgian outfits almost certainly did some of the actors’ work for them.