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Novel Idea

Between the Covers: Ron Evans and Corinne Miller get cozy in West Abbey Productions' staging of Howard Fast's "The Novelist."

Jane Austen finds love and success in charming West Abbey production

By Troy Patterson

WITHIN THE LAST 18 months, Jane Austen has become the premier 19th-century novelist of 20th-century America. Having watched Emma Thompson score an Oscar for the film version of Sense and Sensibility and seen Alicia Silverstone graduate from MTV tart to silver-screen strudel by starring in Clueless, simply a remake of Emma, I next expected to find fat, glossy, Fabio-covered editions of Northanger Abbey popping up on the shelves of airport bookstores.

Alas, Western Civilization is not half so deep in the throes of Austenaphilia, but there can be few doubts that the Art and History Center's charming revival of The Novelist: A Romantic Portrait of Author Jane Austen--brought to us by West Abbey Productions--is occasioned by the current trend.

When the lights come up it is 1817 and Austen (Corinne Miller) sits at the writing desk of her Hampshire cottage working to finish Persuasion. In strolls Captain Thomas Crighton (Ron Evans), a recently retired naval officer and avid Austen fan who--after some fine-crafted farcicality about the abruptness of his entrance--introduces himself and then proposes marriage. In keeping with the novelist's position as a social satirist, Miller and Evans play this bit as a comedy of manners. She is the stuffy social traditionalist unnerved by his lack of a "proper introduction." He is the elegant buffoon. Jane bounces him, but guess who's coming to tea the next day.

Spinster and suitor warm up to each other through the rest of the first act. Assisted by the adept direction of Susan Stuart, Miller and Evans create some well-mannered sexual tension via verbal jousting over coffee and biscuits. It's a formula we've seen employed by such disparate dramatic couples as Benedick & Beatrice and Harry & Sally, but the pair are smart, witty and downright delightful enough to stay entertaining. The chemistry is so effective that it only annoys us a wee bit when the big, inevitable kiss that closes Act One comes off as a soap-opera smooch.

Drama stalls to melodrama in the second act, where the captain gets called back to sea and Jane gets sick, but it's a happy ending, with the couple reuniting in epistolary embrace. Their love, it seems, is as much textual as sexual, and playwright Howard Fast toys with high-falutin' ideas of reading and writing as gamely as he employs myriad Austen allusions. Occasionally, though, the gambit merely amounts to Fast's having put the "litter" back into "literary," when too much arcane Austenalia distracts us from otherwise swift dialogue.

That aside, The Novelist does Miss Austen proud by asking as many questions as it answers about the current vogue for Queen Jane.

The Novelist plays Friday­Saturday (8pm) and Sunday (2pm) through Aug. 4 at the Art and History Center (725 Front St., SC). Tickets ($13) can be reserved by calling 454-0697 or 335-7906.

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From the July 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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