What a dashing figure Jo March would cut in the world, if only the world would allow it.
In trousers and tailcoat, she’d make her way through Europe, and make a name for herself in the bargain. She’d “become Shakespeare and Dickens and Thackeray,” she tells her sisters, who have much tamer dreams.
For some of us, Jo has always been the most compelling character by far in Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel “Little Women.” In reworking it for the stage, Kate Hamill (best known for her smart, sprightly Jane Austen adaptations) has done the dramatically sensible thing and placed Jo at the center — along with Laurie, the spirited boy next door, who loves Jo in a way that she can’t return.
“You can be lonely in a crowd, if it’s not the right crowd,” Jo tells the girls, and so she is, stuck in a world of women when her every fiber yearns to adventure alongside the men. All the nonsense restrictions of ladylike behavior — and feminine dress — only make her struggle harder.
From the opening moments of the play, directed by Sarna Lapine and presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater, Kristolyn Lloyd makes a charming and entirely sympathetic Jo. Nate Mann, in a lovely New York stage debut, gives her the ideal companion in his awkward, dryly funny Laurie.
There’s a peculiar lack of warmth to Ms. Lapine’s production as a whole, however. Rebalanced though Alcott’s narrative is — and Ms. Hamill, in a program note, professes a belief in “radical adaptation” — this “Little Women” is still the story of a family. Set during the Civil War, which their father has gone off to join, it’s about the Marches persevering on the home front.
That includes the proper eldest daughter, Meg (Ms. Hamill); sickly, saintly Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu); selfish, flouncing Amy (Carmen Zilles); their beloved mother, Marmie (Maria Elena Ramirez); and their housekeeper, Hannah, a small role that the expert Ellen Harvey imbues with outsize comedy.
But these Marches don’t feel much like a unit, and the first act, performed with too-manic energy, is hobbled by our not knowing most of them in any depth. The novel is huge and many-tentacled; the play has to focus more tightly. In doing so, it relies too much on our familiarity with, and affection for, the book.
The play is more frolicsome and complex on the page than in this production, which seems undecided whether to aim itself at school-age audiences, grown-ups or — ideally — both.
The second act, confronting questions of marriage and other adult matters, is the richer of the two. Meg, now a frazzled young mother, gets a gorgeous scene of near despair, movingly performed by Ms. Hamill with just the right comic touch.
Haloed as she is, Beth is doomed to remain the boring one. But the silly, malaprop-prone Amy blossoms fully into her horridness, becoming an excellent foil for Jo, the pants-wearing hero we root for as obstacles pile up. When Laurie offers to rescue her, he means well yet clearly doesn’t understand.
“There’s no place for me in this world,” Jo tells him.
“Hold on to me,” he says.
And your heart may break, just a little, that they can’t go off into that world together, forever bosom pals.
Through June 29 at Primary Stages, Manhattan; 212-352-3101, primarystages.org. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.