Pierre, leader of an avant-garde theatre group that lives and works in a renovated loft in the So ho section of New York, acquires the manuscript of a play written by Jane Austen when she was twelve years old and titled Sir Charles Grandison. or The Happy Man A wealthy patron of the arts, George Midash, purchases the manuscript at an auction and entrusts it to Pierre.
Lilianna, a grande dame of the theatre and a former teacher (and lover) of Pierre, attends one of the very experimental rehearsals of his theatre troupe and decides that she should be the person to present the play to the public. She attempts to enlist the support of Midash and his foundation, claiming that a classical presentation of the play is how "Jane Austen would have wanted it." Her visions ot how she imagines it produced alternate with Pierre's rehearsals, interspersed with scenes of the conflicts between Pierre. Lilianna and Midash and his foundation.
To tell who wins out would ruin the fun and might even distract one from the joy of seeing the race.
What must be quickly pointed out is that once again Ivory has settled on a subtle study of group behavior and the emotional interdependence it engenders. Here again is the Chekhovian play of characterand emotion, the constantly shifting balances and allegiances, the witty reversing of audience expectations about his people. Here, too. is the humorous and literate scripting of Ruth Jhabvala.
Tom Milne in Sight and Sound said: As everyone knows by now. Jane Austen in Manhattan creates a companion hullabaloo to the delightfully Jamesian squabble fomented around Georgie and Bonnie's pictures by the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate, with the bone of contention this time being a fragment of Jane Austen juvenilia: the manuscript of her play adapted from Richardson's novel Sir Charles Grandison, bought at auction in New York and then fought over by rival producers anxious to stage it on and off Broadway.
But where ihe earlier film was greeted enthusiastically, Jane Austen in Manhattan seems to have gone down like a slice of stale seed cake Choking over the likelihood that anyone could want to stage something so manifestly trivial (and thus begging the question of the theatre's persistent efforts to render stageworthy anything from plays by Picasso to the Nighttown episodes from Joyce's Ulysses), critical venom was mostly vented on the character ot Pierre (Robert Powell), the experimentalist guru in charge of the 'Manhattan Encounter Theatre Laboratory', who was instantly pigeon-holed away in pseuds corner.
All of which seems to have little to do with a reading of the play itself, which is more concerned to stir up some gentle mockery around the perennial preoccupation in the arts with 'seeking the bubble reputation', the pursuit of which demonstrates (to go back to the beginning of the same passage in As You Like II) the extent to which all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
Of course, as Pierre himself remarks, everything he has to offer is negative: an exposure of cliche and, he hopes, an uncovering of new perceptions. Watching Victor rehearse a brilliant pastiche Bob Fosse number for his next Broadway musical, one is reminded that the eccentric, off-balance movements characteristic of Fosse's choreography probably derived from experiments just such as Pierre's.
Of course, Pierre is also every bit as self-serving as Lillianna in that he is vying with her to get his name up in lights. Otherwise this wouldn't be the Jane Austen comedy of manners that is, matching the delightfully sidelong wit of Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures as all the major characters (and all the performances are superb) play charades concealing their true impulses: Pierre as the humanitarian masquerading as a charlatan. Lilianna as the fulsome earth mother with a vindictive knife in each hand, George as the advocate of progress who cannot bear the prospect of change. All except Ariadne, that is, who finds her guru where there is none, and who disappears through the looking-glass to a destination that remains the film's secret."