NEW YORK—What this play does to the English language is criminal, comically so, but fortunately there’s nothing else even remotely cringe inducing in The Pearl Theatre Company’s sterling presentation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals.
The play takes a satirical look at the upper class, proving that honesty is the best policy and that always looking into the mouth of darkness is not necessarily a good thing.
Young Jack Absolute (Cary Donaldson) is a wealthy army officer who has assumed the identity of one Ensign Beverley, a poor but honorable fellow, in order to court the beautiful Lydia Languish (Jessica Love). Lydia loves romantic novels concerning poor boy-rich girl couplings.
Complications arise when Jack’s blustering father, Sir Anthony (Dan Daily), announces he has arranged for Jack to be married. Sir Anthony’s selection is the selfsame Lydia.
Jack must scramble to keep Lydia in the dark about his deception, while convincing both his father and Lydia’s guardian Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz), a woman with a habit of twisting her words around, that he is actually quite keen on the idea.
It turns out Jack is not Lydia’s only suitor. Also vying for her hand is the rather boorish Bob Acres (Chris Mixon) and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Sean McNall)—a somewhat hot-tempered man.
O’Trigger believes he has been carrying on a love affair with Lydia by mail. Though in actuality Lydia’s maid Lucy (Joey Parsons) has been deliberately misdirecting the correspondence.
Jack also has to deal with the problems of his friend Faulkland (Brad Heberlee) who is chronically suspicious of whatever is said to him—be it someone wishing him good fortune or bidding him farewell.
Faulkland’s paranoia, which has its roots in jealousy, is driving his true love Julia (Rachel Botchan) to consider leaving him forever.
It’s not long before these different storylines collide. The only seeming solution for Jack is a duel to the death and perhaps more than one.
Making the entire experience so enjoyable is not so much what is said as how it’s said. Mrs. Malaprop unfurls one questionable sentence after another (“Well, Sir Anthony, I shall give Mr. Acres his discharge, and prepare Lydia to receive your son’s invocations;—and I hope you represent to the captain as an object not altogether illegible.”).
The humor also comes from Sir Anthony, who often acts completely the opposite from the way he talks. He threatens to lose his composure while talking to his son, when in actuality, the elder Absolute has long since abandoned whatever emotional equilibrium he had.
There are also the very amusing pauses the different cast members take when trying to decipher exactly what Mrs. Malaprop has said, and Faulkland continually dissecting everything said to him as he looks for hidden meanings, meanings that usually aren’t there.
The casting is excellent. Daily often steals the show as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who always seems a half-sentence away from exploding in anger, despite the character’s continual comments to the contrary.
Schultz is hilarious as Mrs. Malaprop, a self-assured woman whose every other sentence causes a head-scratching moment.
Adding to the general hilarity is the brilliant performance of Mixon as Acres, a coward through and through, proudly proclaiming his intentions to fight Beverley in a pistol duel yet also doing everything possible to avoid it.
Donaldson is good as Jack, especially when trying to keep everyone from learning the truth about Beverley.
Love works well as Lydia, while Heberlee is nicely exasperating as the somewhat sour Faulkland.
McNall is enjoyable in the role of O’Trigger, a good-natured but bloodthirsty sort, eager to settle matters of honor with cold steel, but who also can be quite reasonable when the circumstances warrant.
Hal Brooks’s direction is very strong here, taking the characters almost to the line of parody so they feel larger than life, yet while never crossing over it. He also does good work with the pacing of the story—the show never feels overlong despite its lengthy running time. Good work also by fight director Rod Kinter and costume designer Sam Flemming.
A hoot from start to finish, The Rivals makes for a very entertaining evening and should definitely not be missed.
Also in the cast are John Egan and Kambi Gathesha.
The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-563-9261 or visit Pearltheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Closes: May 25
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.