"I have always detested farce," says the title character in Jungle Theater's "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley." Which is awkward, since she is in one.
Closer to the door-slamming, identity-mistaking territory of, say, "Charley's Aunt" than to "Pride and Prejudice," the Jane Austen novel from which it borrows its characters, "Miss Bennet" is an amusing diversion. It focuses on "P&P" middle daughter Mary Bennet, the one whose most noteworthy contribution to the novel is performing a piano recital and being told by her father, "That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough."
In the sure hands of actor Christian Bardin, bossy and bookish Mary gets to delight us much more in "Miss Bennet," which finds her on a family holiday at the home of big sister Elizabeth and her husband, Mr. Darcy.
Mary lectures the other guests, bangs away on the piano ("I'm not upset. Mr. Beethoven is upset.") and tries to pretend there isn't an evergreen in the foyer (Elizabeth is an early adopter of the Christmas tree trend from Germany, and it is controversial). Attention is paid to such Austen standbys as an entailed estate and a doomed marriage — as the poor, unsuitably wed Lydia Bennet Wickham, hilarious Kelsey Didion is like a cat, always flinging herself at the person in a room who is least likely to enjoy her.
Into this situation walks Arthur de Bourgh, a man with a fortune and a title (JuCoby Johnson, capping off a sterling year with a performance of endearing nerdiness). Arthur is pedantic, he talks too much and he seems to have no understanding of social cues. In other words, he is Mary's dream date.
I suspect the audience for an Austen-tatious holiday show is self-selecting: If you're not already a fan, you probably won't go, so the main question is whether Austenites will cotton to "Miss Bennet" and I think the answer is yes. It doesn't always feel right (when Elizabeth and sister Jane talk about marital relations, it's closer to the "Sex and the City" period than the Regency period) but playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon lovingly salute Austen's witty, coded language, such as this lace-covered insult: "Oh, my dear Mary. Don't you look ... the same?"
Director Christina Baldwin makes clever use of music to keep "Bennet" moving swiftly, with carol-singing servants to smooth transitions between scenes. It's a slight play and not an especially original one, since most of its plot details are reused from Austen's own work. But Austen fans aren't looking for something revolutionary. They're looking for something familiar, and they'll get it with this charming salute to romance, the holidays and ostentatious sideburns.