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The Rivals

Carol Schultz as Mrs. Malaprop and Jessica Love as Lydia Languish in The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals", directed by Hal Brooks.

Carol Schultz as Mrs. Malaprop and Jessica Love as Lydia Languish          photo by Al Foote III


The Rivals 

                                                        by Eugene Paul


There’s a persistent literary rumor that Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s perilously near fatuous hit play, The Rivals, was a particular favorite of George Washington’s.  Yes, that George, “The Father of Our Country”.  Doesn’t that put a wrinkle in your American history… There is also another cautionary tale that young Richard Brinsley Sheridan, desperate for money to continue living among the swells in Bath, decided that the only way to quick riches and suitable regard was to write a play, which he had never done before.  So he did.  The Rivals. Doesn’t that make you grind your teeth?  Gad, if he were still collecting royalties these 240 years on…

The Rivals is such a carefully contrived work of artifice that missteps at any point could bring the whole structure down to abashed rubble.  Nevertheless, the intrepid Pearl Company revel in the play and the revelry is contagious. For the last of the plays in their thirtieth season, they are staging one of their handsomest productions, directed by their new artistic director, Hal Brooks and his stylish hand augurs an auspicious insight into their future. Sheridan’s 240 year old hit is a great favorite with this company and its faithful fans, last mounted eleven years ago, many of the company appearing in the current production in different roles with one notable exception: Carol Schultz once again as Mrs. Malaprop. Priceless.

Since everyone needs reintroduction to the complications and the characters let us begin at the most beguiling: Miss Lydia Languish (Jessica Love) an heiress, a beauty and a nitwit, ready to renounce all for love.  Well, almost all, she’s not a total nitwit, just hopelessly romantic and romance is there in the strapping, manly, impoverished persona of Ensign Beverly, who is equally, passionately in love with her, although his esteem for her money is or is not a factor, all this amorousness unbeknownst to Lydia’s guardian, the formidable dragon Mrs. Malaprop who expostulates with vigor and inaccuracy on any subject, much to the bemused consternation of her circle.

Also unbeknownst to Lydia – there’s a lot of that in this play – is the fact that Beverly is really Captain Jack Absolute (Cary Donaldson) who assumes the disguise of Ensign Beverly to appeal to his dreamy lady love’s current passion for handsome but poor dreamboats. He is actually the wealthy son and heir of Sir Anthony Absolute (Dan Daily), an obstreperous, gouty windbag who wants his son to make a good –read “wealthy and positioned” – marriage and has unbeknownst ( yes,yes) to Jack arranged for him to marry the young lady he chooses for Jack.  Who else?  Lydia Anguish.

Meanwhile, playwright Sheridan (he was only 25 when he wrote this) is just beginning to amaze us with his youthful cleverness.  Jack’s great friend, Faulkland (Brad Heverlee) is madly in love with Julia Melville (Rachel Botchan) when he is not suspiciously wary of her reciprocating his love and is thus crazy in love and crazy out, which he imparts shamelessly to Jack, who knows that Julia is a close friend of his dear Lydia and thus entwines him in their entwinings and untwinings.  Jack is fortunate to have another friend – patience, patience – Bob Acres (Chris Mixon), a well to do farmer who is bound and determined to become a fop and employs the eagerly given advices of Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Sean McNall) an Irish adventurer, himself out to make a happy – read “wealthy and positioned” – marriage for himself and thus also has eyes on Lydia, unbeknownst. 

There, that about does it.  Except for more unbekownsts, some duels, some devoted, devious servants, some misdirected letters – oh, Artifice, thy name is legion.  Or mish mash?

Somehow, director Brooks keeps all this elevated folderol admirably clear, right from the beginning, with equally admirable assistance from set designer Jo Winiarski, costume designer Sam Flemming and actors Joey Parsons, John C. Egan and Kambi Gathesha as admirable aiders and abettors to the proceedings.  He also has the blessing of Carol Schultz’s specialty, delivering a Mrs. Malaprop so auspiciously talking out of the top of her towering wigs that we look forward to her every mangled word. Dan Daily explodes deliciously.  Chris Mixon is a bedizened ass, and lissome Jessica Love turns Lydia’s asininities into swanlike virtues.

Of course, there’s a happen ending.  It’s a comedy.  The getting there is all.  And the Pearl Company are adept, genuine, British imitators, getting there.

Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street.  Tickets: $65. $39 seniors. $20 student rush. $20 Thursday rush. or 212-563-9261.