Review: ‘Being Mr. Wickham’ Tracks a Rake’s Progress

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the human body is continually renewing itself. Billions of cells are replaced every day; by some accounts, after 100 days, enough cells will have turned over to generate an entirely new person. After 30 years: You do the math.

For George Wickham, the infamous knave of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” 30 years has furnished ample opportunity to live plenty of lives. Or so “Being Mr. Wickham,” a tart monodrama written by Adrian Lukis and Catherine Curzon, would have us believe. Lukis, who played Wickham in the 1995 BBC TV adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” plays him again in this hourlong Original Theater production, not so much reprising his role as a slinky hedonist as delicately prying it from Austen’s fingers.

We meet Wickham on his 60th birthday, in a more pensive mood than when readers left him. Gone are his good looks — a hall pass to caddishness in a previous life. He is still married to Lydia, the most jejune of the Bennet sisters, but he has outlived Lord Byron (his hero and patron saint of bad boys), the Regency London courtesan Harriette Wilson (a former flame), and Mrs. Bennet, or “Mrs. B,” as he fondly remembers her. More devastatingly, he finds himself sentenced to live past the Georgian era into the frowzy Victorian age, which could not suit him less, with its “sanctimonious” attitudes and “piety,” as he disdainfully proclaims.

Wickham, who has been working on a memoir called “My Scandalous Life,” takes us on a romp beginning with his halcyon youth at Pemberley, the palatial estate where he was raised to be the equal of its young master, Fitzwilliam Darcy. “Darcy might have had rank and position, but I had something else: charm.”

So far, so Austen. But this is a tale told by Wickham, and it doesn’t take long for his account to diverge from the novel. Of his early acquaintance with Lydia, for instance, Wickham flatters himself that it was from a spasm of “reckless good will” that he “persuaded her to take off with me, to throw her lot in with mine.” If you believe his chivalrous account, I have an estate to sell you.

As Wickham decants his memories, Libby Watson’s versatile set whisks us from a study in Pemberley, where a young Wickham and Fitzwilliam engage in some illicit drinking, to the office of a sinister and abusive headmaster, where Wickham first develops a taste for revenge. Lukis’s portrayal of the head of Doctor Hitchen’s Academy for Young Gentlemen, among other minor characters, is especially haunting, summoning, with an economy of words, a villain worthy of Dickens and making us see how some acts of depravity get tattooed on a developing brain.

For all its jagged descents into darkness, “Being Mr. Wickham” ends somewhat improbably on a note of storybook tranquillity: with Darcy and Wickham reconciled, like “two blazing furnaces that in time have lost their heat.” Austen famously characterized “Pride and Prejudice” as “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” The description perhaps underrates her novel, but is a fitting epigraph for this play and its decorously debauched protagonist.

Being Mr. Wickham
Through June 11 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour.

This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

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