Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" is all about language and love. For language, Lincoln Center Theater's effervescent revival has a trio of trusty pros - Richard Easton, Dana Ivey and Brian Murray - to deliver the goods.
For love, it has a new generation of young actors, led by Matt Letscher, who acquits himself with remarkable ease as the smitten Jack Absolute, an ensign enraptured by the aptly named Lydia Languish.
And both groups get the comedy that is sprinkled generously throughout the play, which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in a handsome production directed by Mark Lamos.
"The Rivals" is one of those 18th-century classics that rarely get major revivals anymore (its last Broadway outing was in 1942), especially in the lavish style to which Lincoln Center subscribers are accustomed.
A lovely set, courtesy of John Lee Beatty, puts all the action in front of an imposing mansion in the English resort town of Bath. It's here where Sheridan exposes the foibles of various social classes, from the duplicitous uppercrust to their conniving servants.
Lamos has done an exemplary job in clarifying the complicated, often confusing plot, which throws a lot of exposition at the audience in the play's opening scenes. "The Rivals" is a comedy of manners, and manners – or lack thereof - are what gets everyone in trouble.
Lydia, portrayed with pouty perfection by Emily Bergl, is one of those wealthy young ladies who wants to marry poor. She desires someone who doesn't just adore her considerable fortune. So Jack pretends to be someone else to win her heart. Yet he isn't the only suitor for her hand. Bob Acres, a good-natured country squire (played by Jeremy Shamos), also is in pursuit of Lydia, and his competition with Jack gives the play its title.
Letscher, reminiscent of a young Kevin Kline, makes a dashing hero, able to negotiate the play's poetry and its physical antics as well. And Shamos is a delight as Lydia's hearty, bumpkinlike suitor.
But it's the production's seasoned performers who walk off with most of the laughs. There's Easton, as the autocratic Sir Anthony Absolute, burbling over with rage at his son's insubordination. Sir Anthony is one of those fathers who professes to be totally pliable, but only when he gets his own way.
Ivey, done up in designer Jess Goldstein's elaborate costumes, plays the linguistically challenged Mrs. Malaprop, one of the theater's most gloriously comic roles. Mrs. Malaprop is described by one of the other characters in "The Rivals" as "quite the queen of the dictionary." The woman misuses words - with the utmost confidence something Ivey accomplishes with hilarious effect.
And then there is the melodious Murray, as the aging Sir Lucius O'Trigger, who also is pursuing Lydia, although he doesn't realize he actually is corresponding with the young woman's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop. Murray is adept at portraying the buffoon, the man who eventually gets his comeuppance, but the actor does it so well, you actually feel sorry for O'Trigger.
"The Rivals" also has a second romantic plot involving Lydia's cousin, Julia, and the indecisive Faulkland, a friend of Jack's. It may be one young couple too many, although Carrie Preston and Jim True-Frost acquit themselves well in these almost thankless roles.
In the end, though, it's Mrs. Malaprop and the romantic entanglements of her niece that keep this merry play spinning.
Theater lovers who know how rare good classical theater is here should be delirious with Mark Lamos' production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy "The Rivals."
The pleasure begins as soon as you enter the Vivian Beaumont and see John Lee Beatty's sparkling evocation of 18th-century Bath. There is a similarly voluptuous elegance to Jess Goldstein's costumes.
But I rarely quibble over sets and costumes. Designers assume it is part of their job to study the period and customs of the world they are re-creating.
Actors, all too often, do not. The reigning philosophy in New York for many decades has been that only emotional truth counts. There's no denying that it matters enormously, but people have expressed emotions differently in different times.
They also move and speak differently. The joy of Lamos' production is that the actors have such a strong sense of the way people from different classes speak and move.
There's no mistaking, for example, from the irresistibly exuberant way Matt Letscher, as Jack Absolute, bounds about the stage that he is a young man "to the manor born." Or from the earnest, anxious quality of Jeremy Shamos that he is a country fellow nervous about cutting the right figure in posh Bath.
Most delicious are Emily Bergl and Carrie Preston as two young ladies in love, one the victim of too much sentimental reading, the other more hardheaded and worldly.
Sheridan's plot about the course of true love is full of witty absurdities, all of which are captured splendidly in this production, which moves with the dizzy but controlled precariousness of a comic ballet.
Richard Easton embodies all the heartiness and goodwill of the 18th-century country squire as Jack Absolute's old-fashioned but amiable father. It is a memorable portrayal.
Dana Ivey mines all the humor of the play's most famous character, Mrs. Malaprop, whose mangling of the English language remains one of the funniest depictions of intellectual pretention ever.
Brian Murray has a similarly absurd sense of authority as a dull-witted nobleman. Jim True-Frost brings a touch of realistic melancholy to the giddy proceedings as Jack's friend.
Every year at this time, Lincoln Center Theater gives us an extraordinarily generous, lavish holiday gift. This ranks with the best of them.
Why should we be interested in the 1774 play "The Rivals"?
Because this character comedy of ridiculous intrigue and mistaken identities remains very funny -and in the character of Mrs. Malaprop, Richard Brinsley Sheridan has created one of the great figures of the English stage.
After all, how many theater characters have reached that "pineapple" of success of having a noun (in this case, malapropism) named after them?
And although Mark Lamos' staging is both seriously underenergized and undercast, the old play still can get plenty of laughs.
It also fills a need. There is a gap in New York's dramatic diet: Apart from a sadly restricted repertoire of modern American classics plus faded Broadway hits, we are offered hardly any plays older than yesterday yet younger than Shakespeare.
To be honest, the story isn't much. There's a young woman, Lydia Languish (a nicely fluttering Emily Bergl), who, addicted to sentimental novels, is such a romantic snob that she favors a poor suitor over a rich one.
To win her hand, her besotted lover, Captain Jack Absolute (an upright if uptight Matt Letscher), poses as an impoverished junior officer.
Unbeknownst to them (it's that kind of play), Jack's father, the formidable Sir Anthony Absolute, and Lydia's aunt and guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, have already agreed these secret lovers should wed.
Of course, the plot has subplots like rabbits have rabbits. Mrs. Malaprop notably has her own designs on a wicked old, fire-eating Irish baronet, Sir Lucius O'Trigger.
Complex, yes. But it works out - happily, of course.
Yet the present cast doesn't live up those of the past, and it makes an enormous difference.
Dana Ivey, despite the splendid hyperbolic millinery designed by Jess Goldstein, misses the sublime, billowing authority demanded of Mrs. Malaprop -though Richard Easton proves far more at home with Sir Anthony, cheerfully barreling his way through the play.
The estimable Brian Murray made less than I would have expected of Sir Lucius, and seems oddly muted, in part due to Lamos' generic staging.
Just as John Lee Beatty's setting starts as an epic view of Bath and then dwindles into a drab series of domestic interiors and street images, so does Lamos' concept of the play trundle unimaginatively from scene to scene.
Even so, "The Rivals" is must-see theater.
Here she is at last! Dear old Mrs. Malaprop! The delightful Mrs. M, who, with a disdainful nod to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, misspoke her way to immortality in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.
You know the word, you've probably made the mistake, and now, courtesy of the new Broadway revival of "The Rivals," Sheridan's celebrated 1775 comedy of manners, you can finally make the acquaintance of the famous dame who generously bequeathed her name to a linguistic error.
As personified by Dana Ivey, an actress of blissfully well-honed comic instincts, Mrs. Malaprop is indeed the main event in Mark Lamos's plumply upholstered production, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont. Resolutely fighting off scene-stealing attempts by supporting players - primarily her bouncing, powdered bosom and her preposterous bonnets - Ms. Ivey's Mrs. Malaprop parades imperiously through Sheridan's sentimental comedy about romantic complications at the seashore, dispensing glittering gems of inanity: "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!" "He is the very pineapple of politeness!"
Mrs. M and her gloriously disordered vocabulary are, without a doubt, the life of this pasty, but the festivities may not be all you'd hoped for (a familiar sensation at this time of year, when celebrations proliferate). Despite a largely zesty cast and a first-class production from Lincoln Center Theater, the uncomfortable truth is Sheridan's comedy is one of those approved-and-certified classics that require unexpected reserves of patience and fortitude. Intermittently adorable, it is also, and not infrequently, tedious.
Sheridan's first play, "The Rivals" is certainly deliciously and dexterously plotted. It follows the romantic exploits of Capt. Jack Absolute (Matt Letscher), a wealthy young swain who is forced to woo his lover in the guise of a poor ensign. The rapturously inflamed romantic sensibility of Lydia Languish (Emily Bergl) wouldn't have it otherwise; she dreams of elopement, scandal, hounds at the fleeing lovers' heels.
But her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, has discovered Lydia's illicit correspondence with her enticingly disrespectable ensign and locked away her charge until she can find a suitable suitor. Enter Sir Anthony Absolute (Richard Easton), Jack's irascible father, who proposes his son as a worthy candidate. Poor Jack is forced to be his own rival for the hand of his beloved, while stage-managing the complementary romantic disarray of his friend Faulkland (Jim True-Frost). That diffident lad brings the skill and dedication of a Talmudic scholar to his fervent attempts to convince himself that his dear lover, Lydia's friend Julia (Carrie Preston), is insufficiently besotted with him.
The poses and perversities of these young lovers intriguingly prefigure the daintily absurd romances in a later, greater comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde. And the confusions that attend the unraveling of their carefully knotted misfortunes occasion some gloriously funny exchanges.
Mr. Easton is a particular pleasure, portraying Sir Anthony as a guileless, short-tempered child. The scene in which Sir Anthony boils over at Jack's refusal to accede to his arranged mating plans is among the evening's choicest. When Jack respectfully requests to have a say in the matter, Sir Anthony explodes, "What business is it of yours?" Mr. Easton's alternately blustery and delicate rendering of Sir Anthony's outraged dignity and wounded pride is priceless.
Ms. Bergl, a cherubic beauty with a porcelain complexion, brings infinite nuances of languorous self-absorption to Lydia's fretful sighing and pouting. As the resourceful Jack, Mr. Letscher bounds through the contortions of Sheridan's plot with cheery exuberance, proving a spry physical comedian and a deft turner of phrases.
The dependable Brian Murray growls and mutters mischievously as the perfidious Sir Lucius O'Trigger, who engineers a complicated series of antagonisms in order to pursue his own ends. And James Urbaniak provides wry commentary on his superiors' folly as Jack's servant.
Not all the play's roles are ideally cast (Jeremy Shamos struggles mightily, but lacks the boisterous comic style for the buffoonish Bob Acres), but the gentle waves of torpor that waft from the stage as the evening draws on have more to do with a young playwright's inexperience - and the changing rhythms of comedy over the centuries - than flaws in the performances.
Sheridan famously edited the play after a disastrous first night, cutting its length and toning down the noxiousness, and the Irishness, of Sir Lucius. The play reopened 10 days later to lasting acclaim. But contemporary audiences may wish Sheridan had continued to prune. Many scenes grind on well after their comic or dramatic points have been made. Having hit on a paying jest, Sheridan can rarely let it go until he has thoroughly exhausted its comic potential.
Mrs. Malaprop's endless barrage of ill-chosen words is the obvious example. Ms. Ivey's comic style is so assured and refined that her every polysyllable is greeted with peals of laughter by much of the audience, but if you begin to find the dotty old dear a bit of a bore, rest assured you are not alone. (Sheridan mended these flaws in his later masterpiece, "The School for Scandal," which, coincidentally, is receiving its own first-class revival at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, in a production directed by and starring the gifted classical actor Brian Bedford.)
The production's eye-filling visual assets may be an attempt to retain the audience's rapt attention through some of the more laborious passages. Jess Goldstein's riotously colored costumes artfully marry period propriety with a touch of absurdist artifice. The centerpiece of John Lee Beatty's set is a big wedding cake of Georgian facades. As lighted by Peter Kaczorowski, they give the play the fanciful look of a Gainsborough painting on steroids.
Mr. Lamos could conceivably improve the general circulation in front of that wedding cake. Perhaps it's his experience as an opera director that explains why the production seems to proceed like a farce played at the stately pace of Handel. Laughs arrive, but they must be patiently awaited. And in the end you may find that the stockpile of delighted smiles you expected to dispense remains largely undiminished, and many of those guffaws you were anticipating went unguffawed.
She does not utter a word at her entrance, but we are not meant to miss her. In "The Rivals," Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy of manners, the aunt of the heroine is not scheduled onstage until after the romantic convolutions are advanced by sundry characters and we have been briefed for her arrival.
Ah, but as director Mark Lamos clearly knows, the woman is no ordinary meddling relative in a classic comic contraption. This is Mrs. Malaprop - yes, that Mrs. Malaprop, whose mangled loquacity has entered the dictionary as its own noun. What's more, she is being portrayed at the Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont by no everyday character actress, but by Dana Ivey, the formidably irresistible artist at the top of her virtuosic game.
Thus, this Mrs. Malaprop is carried in on a fancy-pants litter and allowed to walk into her house with sublimely meticulous ridiculousness before her official entrance. And this is as it should be.
Ivey is hardly the only delight in this pleasing, if not revelatory, revival of Sheridan's first play. But when she utters, "Comparisons are odorous," or "All men are Bavarians," it does seem that seas should part for her bosom-heaving glory.
"The Rivals" was written two years before Sheridan's masterwork, "The School for Scandal," and, as the program reminds us, on the eve of both the American and French revolutions. The upper classes don't have the sophistication and amoral exuberance they have in such earlier Restoration plays as William Congreve's "The Way of the World," which luxuriated in restored freedom after the pious Reformation had closed theaters and clamped down on other joys of the Renaissance.
But "The Rivals," not seen on Broadway since 1942, is more than just a theatrical footnote garnished with the deliriously conceived Mrs. Malaprop. The plot - complete with the requisite mistaken identities - is too tiresome to summarize.
Still, there is nice, cruel edge to the multiple courtships, a snarky sense of pecking order in the crumbling class-consciousness and progressive notions about the education of females. As the ever-admirable Richard Easton - virtually a company member at Lincoln Center these days - says as the clownish but shrewd, loving yet mean-spirited Sir Anthony Absolute, "Had I a thousand daughters ... I'd as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet."
Lamos has staged the large cast with affection for the language and a diverting mixture of the foolish and the dashing - even when we can't escape the feeling that the younger actors are playing dress-up.
Emily Bergl has a lusty if gullible intelligence as Lydia Languish, Mrs. Malaprop's niece, an heiress who extravagantly languishes on a divan while reading sentimental novels about the romance of marrying poor. Matt Letscher is suitably ardent as Captain Jack Absolute, the rich kid who decides to woo Lydia disguised as a lowly ensign - and thus becomes his own rival.
Carrie Preston and Jim True-Frost are charming as Lydia's levelheaded cousin Julia and her outlandishly jealous suitor, Faulkland. Brian Murray plays the amorous old fool Lucius with eyes that spin like bull's-eyes, and Jeremy Shamos is more than an ambitious bumpkin as Bob Acres, representing the rising middle class as something that came up from the rabbit hole.
John Lee Beatty's sets of Bath, the English resort town, amount to a plainish limestone indoor-outdoor wall with classic symmetries and amusingly different chandeliers for various homes. But Jess Goldstein's costumes are froufrou heaven - buckles and bows, three-cornered hats, outfits as purple as the prose, that explain how colors can be called a riot.
Long before Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives, it seems, women made unconventional and puzzling choices in relationships.
Take the very young, very rich Lydia Languish, who in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's nearly 230-year-old comedy The Rivals (* * * out of four) defies her haughty aunt and elevated station in order to elope with a man who is relatively destitute, or so she thinks.
For Lydia, whose fortune is estimated at 30,000 pounds - an impressive piggy bank for a teenage girl, even if you don't factor in inflation since 1775 and the weak dollar – the prospect of struggling with such a lover is irresistibly romantic.
But Lydia's pauper turns out to be a prince, or at least someone whose social and financial standing are more akin to her own than she had been led to believe. That this would be the central conundrum of a 2 ½-hour play might promise an evening of, to borrow a line from one of Sheridan's better-known predecessors, much ado about nothing
Luckily, in Lincoln Center Theater's new production, which opened at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont, Mark Lamos' nimble direction and splendid cast ensure that this trifle retains its tart appeal.
The revival actually owes its piquancy less to the younger players who enact love's folly than to old pros. Emily Bergl is winningly coquettish as Ms. Languish, and Matt Letscher exudes playful charm as her suitor, Captain Jack Absolute. (Sheridan's characters, like Charles Dickens' or Robert Altman's, can scream out for name identification.) Carrie Preston is endearing as Lydia's friend, whose beau is even more adept at creating unnecessary complications, and Keira Naughton adds sass as Lydia's maid.
But all of the above are hard-pressed to compete with the easy aplomb offered by their elder cast members. Dana Ivey reveals impeccable comic timing as Lydia's aunt, Miss Malaprop, who inspired the term "malapropism." Comparisons are odorous; they don't become you," she tells her niece at one point. She is better pleased after meeting Lydia's love interest, declaring, "He's the very pineapple of politeness."
Richard Easton and Brian Murray prove just as deft as Jack's father and a troublemaking Irishman, Sir Lucius O'Trigger. In the latter role, Murray conspires with the hapless country gentleman Bob Acres, who as played by Jeremy Shamos suggests some forgotten oaf from Martin Short's old Saturday Night Live repertoire.
There is deception, a duel -well, sort of - and some weeping, even on the part of our valiant Captain Jack. But all's well that ends well, and Rivals is ultimately a most agreeable diversion.