As everyone surely knows by now, former Twin Cities actor Vincent Kartheiser—who plays the smarmy ad exec Pete Campbell on TV’s Mad Men—is spending his summer as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Pride and Prejudice.
This novel casting choice is certain to entice people into the Guthrie who normally wouldn’t go. But once they’re seated and the celebrity shock wears off, audiences are going to spend the next two-and-a-half hours watching Kartheiser play one of the most famously inscrutable characters in Western literature.
Unfortunately, one of the problems with watching well-known TV or movie actors play stage roles is that it’s difficult to rinse one’s imagination of their mass-media personas. Consciously or not, Guthrie audiences are going to be comparing the Kartheiser they know as Pete Campbell with the Kartheiser they see pretending to be Mr. Darcy, and there will be an odd disconnect. Every time Kartheiser opens his mouth, the petulant weasel of his TV role will collide in people’s imaginations with what he is trying to do on stage, creating a weird mental echo effect.
The role itself won’t help. While they may share certain surface similarities—primarily their arrogance—Pete Campbell and Mr. Darcy are, at their core, almost exact opposites. Campbell is a whiny, manipulative, jealous misanthrope who spends most of his time trying to get people to notice his accomplishments. He married into money and feels inadequate without it. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, is a rich man whose arrogance is an unfortunate byproduct of his upper-class breeding. He likes to work behind the scenes to make good things happen for people he cares about—particularly his love interest Elizabeth Bennet and her family—but, unlike Pete Campbell, Mr. Darcy does everything he can to deflect attention from himself.
There’s only one way this will work, and that’s if Kartheiser can, in his portrayal of Mr. Darcy, find ways to play off his role as the most despicable ad executive on television, effectively merging the two personas, muting that echo.
The opportunity is there. Pride and Prejudice is a story about the unreliability of first impressions and the danger of judging people before you get to know them. If Kartheiser can use his fame in unexpected ways to give his Mr. Darcy a few extra dimensions, it could be a memorable performance—a stroke of genius, even.
The test will be if, the next time you see Kartheiser on Mad Men, you can’t get his Mr. Darcy out of your head.