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Jane Austen meets charming Christmas comedy in latest from Austin Playhouse

Emily Quigley,

If Jane Austen and Richard Curtis (writer/director of “Love Actually”) were to collaborate on an original story, it would look an awful lot like Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”

Playing through Dec. 23 at Austin Playhouse, “Miss Bennet” is an utterly charming unofficial sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” that takes place a few years after the conclusion of the classic novel. Because it is written specifically for the stage, though, it takes the form of a drawing room comedy of manners that is entirely contained within an actual drawing room.

The story follows the Bennet sisters as they spend Christmas at Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy, the novel’s romantic lead. While older sisters Elizabeth and Jane are both now happily married, their middle sister, the brainy and well-read Mary, remains single and resigned to her future life as a spinster. Enter Lord Arthur de Bourgh, a cousin of Mr. Darcy who has recently come into his own estate and whose own bookwormish tendencies quickly endear him to Mary, and vice versa.

Traditional romantic comedy antics soon follow, with Mary and Arthur needing to overcome both Mary’s flirtatious younger sister Lydia and a designing woman from Arthur’s past. Though the plot is extremely predictable, that actually adds to its charm. The play delights from start to finish with warm, heartfelt comedy that never gets too dark nor too serious, thanks in large part to the cast of Austin Playhouse regulars.

Jess Hughes, as the titular Miss Mary Bennet, is pitch-perfect as the somewhat dour heroine who remains utterly likeable even within her deepest doldrums, and her chemistry with Stephen Mercantel’s shy and bumbling Arthur de Bourgh is adorable without becoming cloying. As Mary’s three sisters, Jenny Lavery, Marie Fahlgren and Maria Latiolais all shine with varying degrees of sororal bickering and affection.

Perhaps the unexpected highlight of the production is the comedic interplay of Samuel Knowlton as Mr. Darcy and Zac Thomas as Charles Bingley, two of the Bennet sisters’ husbands, whose scenes together take on an almost vaudevillian shine. Though somewhat removed from the heart of the narrative, the pair steal quite a few scenes as they play the Victorian vision of gentlemanhood against contemporary notions of masculinity.

Director Lara Toner Haddock and her design team — costume designer Buffy Manners, lighting designer Don Day, sound designer Joel Mercado-See and set designer Mike Toner — focus on realism here, with rich period costumes and a sumptuous set, accentuated by bright pops of color and mood-setting music and sound cues.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a sweet, good-natured piece of escapism, and it just may provide the little bit of warm holiday cheer you might find yourself needing during a very hectic month.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 23

Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.

Cost: $16-$36