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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Of course, just such a marriage is exactly what Jack's crotchety father, Sir Anthony (Dan Daily), and Lydia's linguistically-challenged guardian Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz)—the legendary character from whose name the term malapropism is derived—are planning, though the two children are to various degrees unaware of their elders' specific intentions. Confusion and humor result.
In fact, much of The Rivals capitalizes on various states of confusion—misunderstood intentions, mistaken identities, and other frustratingly basic failures of communication. And yet, because of the kind of play this is, it's a foregone conclusion how it will all get worked out.
Of course, we go into many plays knowing the resolution (knowing that the title characters will die doesn't seem to deter people from seeing Romeo and Juliet), and yet here, the lack of meaningful stakes feels detrimental to the production, which offers some enjoyable comedic moments and performances but is unable to avoid falling victim to the problems of a dated premise and script.
It's certainly natural for Sheridan's nearly-240-year-old play to feel dusty, but here, that dustiness feels as if it drains the energy from the production. Comic energy is strongest in Daily and Schultz's performances, but things generally feel a bit muted and restrained — rarely if ever a boon for this sort of comedy.
Part of the challenge to the performers here is that Sheridan's play gives Mrs. Malaprop most of the good dialogue. Her character's missteps of diction —"Men are all bavarians" is one particularly good one —are by far the best-written parts of the play. Everyone else can't help but be upstaged by Scultz as a result, and attempts to hold the stage against her easily play as overdone.
Scultz has quite some familiarity with the character, too, having played the role before in The Pearl's previous production of the play in 2003 (links to CurtainUp's reviews of this and other previous productions of the play follow this review). She isn't the only one to be appearing in The Rivals for the second time at the Pearl, either, though she is the only one to be reprising the same role. A page in the back of the program charts out who has switched from one role to another, and perhaps only because this lens is willingly offered, one can't help but notice how the characters portrayed previously show up in the performances this time around.
Another critical lens comes from Dramaturg Kate Farrington's enlightening notes in the program, which explore the prominence of artifice in the play. While that idea may be the most tangible link between the otherworldly social conventions of the late 18th century and today (Jack Absolute's creation of the fake persona of Beverly hardly seems that different from the careful staging of identity that happens regularly on social networks and online dating sites), it also proves a slippery slope to explore too directly onstage. So many reminders pointing to the reality that theater itself is nothing more than an artificial construct make it harder for the viewer to invest, and this production of The Rivals ultimately doesn't gain enough momentum to overcome the challenge.
Previous productions of The Rivals reviewed by CurtainUp:
1998 - The Williamstown Theatre Festival
2002 - The Actors Company Theatre
2003 - The Pearl Theatre Company
2004 - Lincoln Center Theater