A fine ensemble cast dives into the delectable froth of a classic comedy of manners in Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” Heartily embracing the theatrical artifice of the late-Restoration piece rather than attempting to modernize their approach, director Mark Lamos and designer John Lee Beatty situate the action entirely downstage, played directly to the audience. While this strategy makes for a production that’s somewhat physically monotonous and low on energy, the play’s vibrant wit prevails, along with its gleeful skewering of pretentious society twits and romantic silliness.
While Sheridan’s best known play, “The School for Scandal,” has had three major New York revivals since WWII, the playwright’s 1775 debut, “The Rivals,” was last produced on Broadway in a 1942 Theater Guild staging at the Shubert, directed by Eva LaGallienne.
Even in a less-than-ideal production, the robust comedy more than stands the test of time: Its spirited characterizations, sharp parodying of romantic mores and brilliantly constructed language remain irreverent and invigorating.
Several of Sheridan’s creations continue to defend their positions among the great comic characters of English-language theater — choleric windbag Sir Anthony Absolute; idiotic romantic idealist Lydia Languish; buffoonish, countrified coward Bob Acres; lovelorn worrywart Faulkland; and, perhaps most of all, Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. M’s absurd misuse of language is matched only by her misguided confidence in her grounding in classical culture: “Sure if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”
The play concerns two couples thwarted on the path to matrimony by obstacles largely of their own invention. An avid devotee of romantic potboilers, Lydia (Emily Bergl) abhors the idea of an approved marriage to a man of her class and wealth; she longs instead for the poetry of elopement with a commoner: “How charming will poverty be with him!” To oblige her whim, Captain Jack Absolute (Matt Letscher) poses as a lowly naval officer.
Jack’s friend Faulkland (Jim True-Frost) is besotted with Lydia’s cousin Julia (Carrie Preston). Imagining her to be miserable when they are briefly parted, Faulkland is troubled to hear that Julia has been merrily socializing, fueling his increasing spiral of unfounded doubts about her love for him.
Complications arise when Lydia’s interfering aunt Mrs. Malaprop (Dana Ivey) and Jack’s father, Sir Anthony (Richard Easton), decide the pair would make a sound match. This prompts resistance from Lydia, unaware of the true identity of her “poor” fiance, and places Jack in a sticky spot. Not just his own rival for Lydia’s hand, Jack also learns of the intentions of Bob Acres (Jeremy Shamos) and blustery Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Brian Murray), who believes he’s been corresponding with the young heiress but has actually been engaged in florid romantic exchanges with Mrs. M.
Sheridan’s deft orchestration of all the deceptions and mistaken identities provides plenty of giddy pleasures, as does the dramatist’s sardonic separation of the characters’ own view of themselves from the vastly different opinion of them held by others.
The playwright amusingly decimates notions of duty, via Sir Anthony and Mrs. Malaprop’s dogmatic expectations, respectively, of Jack and Lydia; and in the behavior of servants, whose devotion masks a hunger for gossip in the case of Jack’s valet (James Urbaniak) and for personal gain in Lydia’s maid (Keira Naughton).
Lamos uses turntable staging to move swiftly from scene to scene, but he keeps the play’s engine at a steady hum where some wild revving might not have been amiss. Beatty’s cluster of Georgian architecture crowds the action onto a confined treadmill and imposes a static feel saved mainly by the buoyant wordplay.
But these limitations are largely surmounted by the actors, all of whom seem to be having considerable fun with their roles. Letscher makes a dashing romantic lead, effortlessly laying on roguish charm; Easton earns steady laughs as red-faced, cantankerous old blowhard Sir Anthony, pompously railing against the overeducation of women; Bergl makes a beguiling nitwit out of petulant Lydia; and, adorned with rouged cheeks and elevated bosom, Ivey invests every one of the malapropisms mouthed by the mother of that word with hilariously vain haughtiness.
The most insipid of the leads, Julia is brought to life by Preston when she flares up in protest against Faulkland’s insecurities, providing the sole emotional moment in a play that delights in its frivolity. With his handsome cartoonish face and Roger Ramjet chin, True-Frost exhibits expert comic timing as the exasperating romantic ditherer. And aside from one or two exceptions (Murray’s Irish brogue seems to vanish after his first scene), the accents are remarkably consistent.
Shamos’ lively turn is given an assist by costumer Jess Goldstein, who outfits him, after Bob’s gentlemanly makeover, like a garish Mad Hatter. The costumes throughout are awash with candy-colored embellishments, frills and flounces.