CAMBRIDGE — All dramatists live, apprehensively, with the knowledge that once it leaves their hands, any play is only as good as its interpreters.
On that score, playwright Kate Hamill lucked out when the gifted David R. Gammons opted to direct — and, as is his custom, design — Hamill’s stage adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel of manners.
The result is an exhilaratingly inventive, go-for-broke production by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater.
While somewhat overlong, “Vanity Fair” is driven by Gammons’s trademark creative vigor from the opening moments, when its characters jerk to life like mechanical toys. An impresario called the Manager — played by the ever-reliable Debra Wise, who is also the URT’s artistic director — addresses the audience, setting both the scene and the waggish tone of “Vanity Fair’s.”
The subsequent dizzy doings of “Vanity Fair” as it sketches a satirical portrait of the British upper class require versatility from Wise and the rest of the cast (five of the seven performers play more than one role), and the actors prove up to that challenge, especially Paul Melendy (speaking of inventive).
At the play’s center is the long-term, sorely tested friendship between guileful social climber Becky Sharp and gentle, overly trusting Amelia Sedley. The two young women undergo different personal travails in early 19th-century London amid the disruptions of the Napoleonic Wars, experiencing the less lethal but still vicious blows of snobbery and exclusion.
Though her portrayal is perhaps a bit too reticent, Malikah McHerrin-Cobb cuts an elegantly refined figure as Amelia, who unwisely remains in thrall to the memory of her faithless husband George (Stewart Evan Smith) while pursued by a more worthy suitor, William Dobbin (Melendy). As Becky, maneuvering her way through the constricting class structure of early 19th-century British society one canny and audacious step at a time while finding time to enjoy the occasional cigar, Josephine Moshiri Elwood does her best onstage work yet.
Fulfilling the promise she showed in earlier, Gammons-directed productions of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” and Robert Askins’s “Hand to God,” Elwood delivers a performance of fire and wit that captures Becky’s raffish amorality, unstoppability, and charm.
Becky begins as a governess, working for the boorish Sir Pitt (Evan Turissini). A running joke of the production is that the entire “Vanity Fair” cast expectorates in scorn whenever the word “governess” is used. She rises in station, or at least Becky thinks so, by marrying Rawdon Crawley (David Keohane), a young man from a prominent family. But his marriage to Becky enrages and alienates his wealthy aunt Matilda (Wise), and the couple’s situation is worsened by Rawdon’s tendency to run up gambling debts. Becky, who says early in the play that “I have nothing but what my wits can afford me,” is soon forced again to live by those wits. (No spoilers, but her ultimate landing place is an ironic one for a fortune-hunter.)
Hamill’s adaptation of “Vanity Fair” is not the first time the playwright has dipped into the rich realm of 19th-century literature. Indeed, she has built a mini-industry out of fast-moving Jane Austen adaptations: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park.” In terms of pace, Gammons and his cast more than honor Hamill’s request that “Vanity Fair” be performed “at the speed of thought” and “attack[ed] with energy.”
When it comes to her instructions that scenery and props should be “minimal,” not so much. David Gammons doesn’t do minimal. He does meet Hamill halfway, though. Gammons’s exceptionally detailed set consists of half a dozen jam-packed, side-by-side dressing rooms, suggestive of parallel lives. Whether for costume and wig changes or scenic transitions, the characters of “Vanity Fair” keep disappearing into those rooms, but most of the action transpires on a bare, narrow stage in front of them.
What props exist are cleverly deployed: a rocking horse, Punch-and-Judy-like puppets, a tiny piano, a mop, a horn. One character wears a periwig made of what appeared to be empty toilet-paper rolls; another is represented by a skull affixed to a Napoleonic bicorn hat that is trimmed with red feathers. When we first meet Becky, she is wearing a leather jacket (the evocative costumes, most of them appropriate to the Regency period, are by Leslie Held) and carrying a guitar case with an “Oasis” sticker on it. It’s one of a few deliberately anachronistic touches in this “Vanity Fair,” including a snatch of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” after a military victory.
Though Thackeray chose to describe “Vanity Fair” as “a novel without a hero,” you’ll likely be inclined to root for Becky, ruthless though she can be. Snootily dismissed early in the play as “a little nobody,” Becky makes sure that, at a minimum, she is a somebody.
Play by Kate Hamill. From the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Feb. 23. Tickets start at $25, 617-576-9278, ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org