The Rivals

What are the right words for the Huntington's take on that Restoration comedy of knotty love and mangled language, "The Rivals?" A pineapple of a production? An absolute gem? Brilliantly lexicuted?

What are the right words for the Huntington’s take on that Restoration comedy of knotty love and mangled language, “The Rivals?” A pineapple of a production? An absolute gem? Brilliantly lexicuted?

All would be accurate for this smartly adapted version, briskly directed by Nicholas Martin, weighing in on the heels of the about-to-close Broadway production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont.

The well-balanced tone of silliness and sensibility is established from the curtain’s rise, revealing Alexander Dodge’s magnificent crescent courtyard in 18th-century Bath, a serene spa setting surrounded by delightfully overwrought apartments that cleverly slide in and out of the action. Michael Krass’ costumes, too, are playfully rendered with design patterns that echo in all the characters’ attire. The design madness continues with some of the wigs, inspired it seems by Marge Simpson.

It is, after all, a 1775 world that is quickly going out of whack, what with the learned ladies asserting themselves, the middle class inching up the ladder of respectability and the servants more adept at secret anarchy than ever. As if to personify the disorder, there’s Mrs. Malaprop, taking the sacred English language on a topsy-turvy ride of glorified misuse.

Part of the fun is that Mrs. M. stands for the old world order, along with Sir Anthony Absolute, the gentrified bully who wants his son Captain Jack to follow his orders on choosing a bride. It’s clear that neither of these parental authorities has a chance and that the future belongs to free spirited lovers.

As luck would have it, Sir Anthony’s choice for his son is the same woman Jack loves: heiress and Malaprop niece Lydia Languish. But Lydia, entranced by her romance novels, disdains the arranged wedlock of her class and seeks a poor ensign of a suitor to sweep her away. With a dashing heigh-ho, Jack pretends to be her fantasy Fabio, but not without several hours’ worth of complications from family, friends and rivals.

What makes all these goings-on so much fun is an energetic cast of old pros and young upstarts all following the dictums of artifice while drawing the lines as well.

Anchoring the production is Mary Louise Wilson as Mrs. Malaprop, giving a masterful perf that balances propriety with oblivious lunacy. Forget slow takes, Wilson does a slow tilt as she hysterically sinks into her couch from the weight of her eventual humiliation — not to mention her hair.

Will LeBow as Sir Anthony knows just how far he can go with his parental bluster and rage and gives a grand perf as well. The two leading lovers show comic deftness of their own. Scott Ferrara has the effortless and likable cool of a Hugh Grant as Jack Absolute, all ease and charm until things get frantic. As Lydia, Cheryl Lynn Bowers is a bonbon of romantic fluffery.

Mia Baron as Lydia’s kind and duller friend, Julia, finds substance in a confrontational and moving scene with her unnerving, exasperating amour Faulkland, played by Gareth Saxe. Brian Hutchison shows wide and impressive comic range as Bob Acres, first as rustic and then as fop. Eric Anderson is sweetly endearing as David, Acre’s faithful and dusty servant.

The Rivals

Boston University Theater; 890 Seats; $69 Top

  • Production: A Huntington Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
  • Crew: Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Dennis Paricht; sound, Jerry Yager; production stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus. Opened Jan. 12, 2005. Reviewed Jan. 15. Runs through Feb. 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN
  • Cast: Fag - Dennis Staroselsky Thomas - Nathaniel McIntyre Lydia Languish - Cheryl Lynn Bowers Lucy - Helen McElwain Julia Melville - Mia Barron Mrs. Malaprop - Mary Louise Wilson Sir Anthony Absolute - Will LeBow Jack Absolute - Scott Ferrara Faulkland - Gareth Saxe Bob Acres - Brian Hutchison Errand Boy - Edward Tournier Sir Lucius O'Trigger - Rod McLachlan David - Eric Anderson With: Bill Barclay, Daniel Berger-Jones, Jessica Grant, Murisa Harba, Patrick Lynch, Max Rosenak