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A CurtainUp Review

The Rivals
By Simon Saltzman

Sure if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs.
--- Mrs. Malaprop
 Emily Bergl
Emily Bergl
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Lydia Languish has been confined to a dressing room in her aunt Mrs. Malaprop's lodging in Bath, England. She is (dare I say it?) languishing on a sofa when her maid Lucy arrives with disappointing news. She has been to every book seller and circulating library in the vicinity and unable to find a single copy of either The Tears of Sensibility,The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality,The Fatal Connection, or any number of other popular romantic novels her mistress has requested. But that is only a little less disappointing to the idealistic 18 year-old Lydia than that her aunt has recently discovered that she is in love with a young man whose lack of money hardly qualifies him as a proper suitor.

"You will promise to forget this fellow-to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory," is Mrs. Malaprop's directive even as we learn that the aunt is also carrying on a secret correspondence under a feigned name with a gentleman she met at a party. Lydia's predicament is shared with her cousin Julia, whose own discomforting romantic issues with her impetuously jealous lover are being tested. It's the perfect setup for a gentile comedy of manner in which polite smiles are more the order of the day than uproarious laughter.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's staid and mildly amusing The Rivals (1775) may not be as highly regarded as his next more successful and more frequently revived play The School for Scandal, (1777) but the current Lincoln Center Theater is happily disposed to restoring the Restoration in this beautifully designed production. Unfortunately, director Mark Lamos has staged the play in what may be presumed to be a present homage to past theatrical conventions, or in possible contradiction to Mrs. Malaprop who clearly says, "We will not anticipate the past." However, there is no denying that each clearly enunciated syllable is bound to prick up our ears.

Dana Ivey & Richard Easton
Dana Ivey & Richard Easton
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As if they were all to the manor of polite society borne, the company appears to relish the pretensions and the pretexts of their predicaments as much as they wallow pleasurably in their broad characterizations and florid language. When it comes to language, has there ever been a character in dramatic literature to rival Mrs. Malaprop's decimation of the King's English, and whose misuse of the language has formally entered the lexicon as a "malapropism"? I cannot think of a better choice to play the seriously interfering aunt with the absurd vocabulary than the inimitable Dana Ivey.

Seen as a parody of conventional romance, The Rivals never infers that we are to take the convoluted affairs of its two sets of lovers seriously. But watching not two but four young earnest romantics take their petty quandaries so seriously does invite a feeling of ho-hum if not downright disinterest. We suspect from the outset that we are not meant to be overly concerned with the fate of Lydia, a young lady of fortune, who idiotically believes that she should marry a penniless suitor rather than a nobleman approved by her parents. It doesn't come as a surprise that the wealthy young gentleman, who adores her, Captain Jack Absolute, has no qualms about pretending to be a poor naval officer named Ensign Beverely. For contrast, there is the ardent but unjustifiably jealous Faulkland who is tormented by the thought that his beloved Julia might be having a good time whenever he isn't around. For her part, Julia is getting fed up with Faulkland's irrational and insulting insinuations.

Emily Bergl adorns Lydia's foolish idealism with an abundance of beguiling charm. As Captain Jack Absolute, Matt Letscher obliges our highest expectations with a winning performance that is subtly mischievous. While Faulkland's jealousy appears as a one-note motif, Jim True-Frost invests the role with a touching hint of the pathetic. Carrie Preston breezes winsomely through the bewildering social melee until she makes an emotionally gratifying turnaround finally taking Faulkand to task for his unwarranted behavior. Yet, these four characters that Sheridan uses to propel his comic spoof of 17th century mores and propriety cannot help but be upstaged by Mrs. Malaprop. With her empowered cleavage, the tortured twist of her cupid lips and the generous misapplication of words, Ivey plays this "queen of the dictionary" to t"the pineapple of politeness."

There is a degree of amusement watching the coarse antics of Jeremy Shamos, as the clownishly-attired highly eccentric country gentleman Bob Acres. Anthony Absolute's hot-tempered yammering about the over-education of women and the perceived insolence of his son Jack is bellowed in bravura style by Richard Easton. And was there ever a doubt that Brian Murray would find a way to instill the misguided-in-love Sir Lucius O'Trigger with a heavy dose of Irish bombast when he discovers that the missives he thought were being sent between him and Lydia were, in fact, between him and Mrs. Malaprop.

Mainly it is the interference of Lydia's aunt Mrs. Malaprop and Jack's father Sir Anthony that puts the comedy into gear by complicating the young lovers' path to marriage. Naturally their plot to unite Lydia and Jack is unwittingly detoured by Lydia, who is unaware of Jack's real identity. Sheridan's play resonates with supercilious smartness, and the postures and putdowns of societal protocol for both the masters and their devoted servants are legion as well as lengthy. The latter are played with a hunger for juicy gossip and more by James Urbaniak, as Jack's precocious valet Fag, and Keira Naughton, as Lucy, Lydia's delightfully duplicitous maid.

Designer John Lee Beatty has created a lovely pastel-hued front view of a Georgian-style house. A revolving treadmill brings props and essential furniture into view to suggest various locations. Different pairs of chandeliers also descend to denote different homes. Somewhat disengaging is the action, all of it played downstage and in a rather static manner. There is an abundance of protracted front and center asides given by almost everyone that quickly wear out their welcome. But unlike most intimate chamber operas that this staging so artfully resembles, there are no soaring melodies to warm us but only a rather tedious libretto bolstered by a surfeit of malapropisms. Jess Goldstein's extravagantly fringed and frilly costumes, absolutely dazzling in the glow of Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, brighten up the otherwise rather dull doings.

At the performance I attended, there were quite a few walkouts at intermission and only polite applause at the end. It is interesting to consider how much better "The Rivals" might be had it been staged at the smaller Mitzi Newhouse and how much more impressively Belle Époque (our review) could have been conceived for the larger Vivian Beaumont.

Editor's Note: At the same time The Rivals is being revived at Lincoln Center, Sheridan's School for Scandal is enjoying a revival at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. That review and some other links of interest below:
School of Scandal (Mark Taper)
The Rivals:
The Rivals (Williamstown Theatre Festival-- with Dana Ivey as Mrs. Malaprop (Directed by WTF's newly appointed artistic director, Roger Rees.
The Rivals (Pearl Theater)
School For Scandal
The Metaphors of Richard Brinsley sheridan

The Rivals

Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Mark Lamos
Cast: Emily Bergl (Lydia Languish), Richard Easton (Sir Anthony Absolute), Herb Foster (Thomas), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Malaprop), Matt Letscher (Capt. Jack Absolute), David Manis (David), Brian Murray (Sir Lucius O'Trigger), Keira Naughton (Lucy), Carrie Preston (Julia), Jeremy Shamos (Bob Acres), Jim True-Frost (Faulkland), James Urbaniak (Fag) and P. J. Verhoest (Errand Boy).
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Original Music: Robert Waldman
Sound Design: Scott Stauff
Choreography: Sean Curran
Wig Design: Charles LaPointe
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Lincoln Center/Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th 212/239-6900
From 10/24/04 to 1/30/05; opening 12/16/04.
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Wed & Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 3:00PM.
Tickets: $55 - $85
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on December 22nd performance
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