nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 5, 2005
Plays like The Rivals don't get done on Broadway very often these days—they are viewed, unfortunately, as too big and too complicated to make economic sense in our biggest theatres. So we should be grateful when a large institutional theatre like Lincoln Center decides to give us a fairly grand production of one of the English canon's classic comedies, complete with luscious and eye-catching costumes, an ensemble of A-list actors, and scads of chandeliers. Such a show gives us a look at the theatre our grandparents took for granted, not to mention an elegant and diverting evening of entertainment.
The story of The Rivals revolves around Captain Jack Absolute, a handsome fellow in love with a young lady named Lydia Languish whose romantic whims have made her prefer a poor lover to a rich one. So Jack, who is of very good stock indeed, has masqueraded as the lowly Ensign Beverley to woo Lydia, to her delight and to the consternation of her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop. Jack's father, Sir Anthony Absolute, meanwhile (and unawares), has decided to marry Jack off to Lydia, and he contracts with Mrs. Malaprop to do so, thus putting the younger Absolute in the singular position of being his own rival for the affections of the woman he loves.
Two additional rivals emerge as well: Bob Acres, a good-natured but fairly empty-headed provincial; and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, a peevish Irishman who is conducting a secret correspondence with Lydia, or so he thinks—it turns out that the love letters he's been receiving come from none other than Mrs. Malaprop.
A second romance between Jack's pal Faulkland and Lydia's cousin Julia serves as the principal subplot. Faulkland is a preternatural worrier, fretting over any sign of trouble in his relationship with the more level-headed Julia, almost all of which exist only in his imagination. The play also includes a famous running gag, whereby Mrs. Malaprop continuously substitutes one word for another (she's the kind of woman who boasts of the "derangement" of her "epitaphs" when what she probably means is the "arrangement" of her "epithets"; she gave her name to this condition).
The Rivals, half merry satire of pomposity and affectation, half frothy romantic farce, is great fun, for us and for the actors who get to play it. Giving (and, as far as I can tell, having) the most fun here is the estimable Richard Easton, whose Sir Anthony Absolute is a towering comic creation, far and away the finest performance in a worthy production. Easton relishes the overblown explosions that constitute the dialogue assigned to this dithering, blustering old fellow who demands total subservience from his grown-up son and is ready to blow up in a million pieces at the least provocation. Easton's Absolute gets so caught up in his self-indulgences that, when Jack's charade as Ensign Beverley is finally exposed, he is so thrown by his son's misbehavior that he finds himself genuinely unsure who Jack really is.
Easton is just about matched by Matt Letscher, a young actor who proves himself an outstanding find in the role of Jack. Letscher has the requisite good looks and manners, but he doesn't stop there in creating a delightfully likable rascal, one who is amused by his overbearing parent, dismayed by his friend Faulkland's self-defeating follies, and honestly distraught at the collapse of his own romantic schemes. There's a place in the play's second half when Letscher delivers one of Jack's many asides, a strategically necessary "What shall I do?"—but instead of merely telegraphing a moment of panic, he breaks the fourth wall for a second, genuinely seeming to want our advice. A nice touch, I thought.
A pair of other young actors acquit themselves quite well. James Urbaniak, a downtown stalwart in his Broadway debut, is deliciously on-target as Jack's pretentious, gossipy servant Mr. Fag. And Jeremy Shamos, another rising star whose roots are off- and off-off-Broadway, has some splendid moments as the rustically comic Bob Acres.
The evening's two biggest names, Dana Ivey and Brian Murray, do not let us down. Murray has the relatively small role of Lucius O'Trigger, and he mines it for comic gold with his customary aplomb (though I was surprised that the Irish accent he affected in the first half completely disappeared during the second). Ivey is exquisitely cast as the always foolish and often sour Mrs. Malaprop, and delivers the expert performance that her fans will expect; if I'm not so enthusiastic about her work here, it's because I find that Mrs. Malaprop's slips of the tongue wear out their welcome sooner than Sheridan did.
Jess Goldstein's costumes are colorful, witty, and plentiful. John Lee Beatty's set includes no fewer than three different pairs of chandeliers, which are very pretty; but its centerpiece—a big, bright, round gingerbread house that occupies most of the Beaumont's thrust stage—turns out only to be a backdrop for spare interior and exterior settings; a bit of disappointment given how inviting it looks. Mark Lamos's direction is brisk and effective, but he's chosen to begin the evening with a dumb-show prologue that serves no purpose save to delay the evening's fun.
I wish that producers could/would charge less than $55 - $85 for tickets to a show like this; students and young actors would really get a lot out of seeing such a first-rate mounting of a classic work (and they'd likely enjoy it as well, as would plenty of other non-rich folk). But if the tariff doesn't faze you, then I heartily recommend The Rivals: it's deft, diverting, and a real charmer.