Pearl's staging of Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" can't cram the book's scope into three-plus hours.

Both too much and too little, the Pearl’s staging of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” can’t cram the book’s scope into three-plus hours, but not because it’s allowing characters to develop. The novel — nobody’s favorite Dickens, in any case — presents several challenges. There’s the complex (and archaic) socialist message, a dozen distinct personalities with complicated relationships, and a decades-long timeframe. Pearl a.d. J.R. Sullivan doesn’t manage to unify his crew of regulars, though Sean McNall gives a series of on-the-money performances.

Dickens’ lengthy and character-rich tales have lent themselves best to story theater — wordy shows with simple designs that use plenty of third-person narration to convey his characteristic storytelling breadth.

Stephen Jeffreys mimics the tried-and-true format with this 1987 adaptation, but the result mostly begs unflattering comparison to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s legendary nine-hour “Nicholas Nickelby,” which preceded “Hard Times” by six years. It’s not that what works for one novel doesn’t work for the other; it’s that both adaptations shift the burden of proof almost entirely to the actors, which worked just fine with the RSC.

Frankly, what’s most impressive here is that the Pearl’s six-member multitasking cast does occasionally rise to the challenge.

Bradford Cover’s portrayal of odious Josiah Bounderby is like someone imitating John Cleese imitating someone else. But he’s surprisingly deft as caddish seducer Mr. Harthouse. McNall may have found his calling with this show. As the lead in the Pearl’s earlier “Playboy of the Western World,” he couldn’t quite find his feet. But given two or three broad and wildly different characters to play here, he seems totally at his ease.

Other performers fare less well — Jolly Abraham (who plays the orphaned Sissy) has only a couple of wide-eyed expressions as the show’s lead, and the usually solid Rachel Botchan is badly miscast as her virtuous stepsister Louisa.

It’s not hard to see what prompted Sullivan to program “Hard Times.” The show’s occasionally trenchant socialism would seem to have as much to say to the destructive greed of 21st century bankers as it did to the grasping barons of industrial revolution. But the moralizing — incarnate in sad-sack weaver Stephen Blackpool (T.J. Edwards in a thankless part) — was a little unsubtle even then. Now it’s both unsubtle and inscrutable, given our distance from the evils of industrialized labor.

Sullivan could probably have ameliorated a lot of this. There are moments in the second act when he tries to choreograph the performers’ movements in minute detail and others in act one when he seems to let them do whatever comes naturally. Both approaches (within reason) have their merits, but neither works alongside the other.

Jo Winiarski’s handsome set is attractive and functional, while Devon Painter’s costumes are great on the men and baggy and unflattering on the gals. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis does the actors no favors.

Hard Times

NY City Center; 150 seats; $50 top

Production

A Pearl Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Stephen Jeffreys, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by J.R. Sullivan.

Creative

Set, Jo Winiarski; costumes, Devon Painter; lighting, Stephen Petrilli; sound, Lindsay Jones; movement, Kali Quinn; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Lisa Ledwich. Opened Feb. 9, 2010. Reviewed Feb. 7. Running time: 3 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

With: T. J. Edwards, Jolly Abraham, Bradford Cover, Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan, Robin Leslie Brown.

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