Richard Brinsley Sheridan's dazzling ability to create bitingly extravagant characters and then use them to deflate the hypocrisy and manners of his age has kept his two masterworks -- The School for Scandal and The Rivals -- in constant play around the English-speaking world. The Rivals in particular is a comedy of great wit and style, a joyous romp that skewers love, contempt, marriage, position, and wealth with a glee that has kept it fresh for over 225 years. Written when Sheridan was just 24 years old, that youthful freshness stands The Rivals in good stead at the King's County Shakespeare Company, because while there was nothing that was outrageously wrong with their production, there was little that was outrageously wonderful either.
As directed by Deborah Wright Houston, everything moved like clockwork and the laughs came on cue. The mostly charming cast gave solid renderings of Sheridan's larger-than-life characters, visually the production was an eye-popping parade of lavish period costumes (kudos to Cathy Maguire) and lovely sets and lighting (kudos to Dan Nichols as well) and everything testified to the extreme good taste and careful planning that went into the entire enterprise. But here's the rub: there wasn't anything that jolted one out of one's seat with the thrill of theatrical invention. Everything was so carefully wrought, so delicately handled and so reverently tended that the evening was only rarely able to loosen up enough to become the deliciously dizzy confection that it should have been. The pace was further compromised by a multitude of laborious scene changes that brought the action to a dead halt and easily added 20 minutes to an already long evening.
Whatever sparkle and fizz the evening possessed were effortlessly supplied by Vicki Hirsch as Mrs. Malaprop and Joseph Small as Sir Anthony Absolute. Hirsch, looking like a Bo-Peep who never quite recovered from the loss of her sheep, made a fabulously formidable she-dragon, swooping around the stage as if it were her own personal property. Which of course it was, every single time she opened her mouth to pontificate with that hilariously infamous vocabulary that coined a phrase. Likewise, Small was a similar pro whose every mutter, stutter and sputter lifted the production into the realm of the intoxicatingly sublime. Together and apart, these two never failed to delight and kept one awaiting their every appearance with breathless anticipation.
It is probably better to err on the side of careful consideration, rather than mistrust the material to such an extent as to, say, set a classic work in the disco environs of 1970s Long Island. While remaining true to the period in which the comedy is set, Houston has mounted a perfectly respectable version of The Rivals that will no doubt entertain a lot of people. One just wishes that she had shown a little less respect, injected a little more piss and vinegar, and served up a production that matched the wit and sass of Sheridan's ever-youthful script.
(Also featuring: Donald Bledsoe, Jovinna Chan, Lucie Chin, Carrie Edel, John Flaherty, Ian Gould, Ashlynne Holder-Mosley, Bev Lacy, Sherri Pullum, Alex Roe, Andres Santofimio, Stephanie Faith Scott, Frank Smith, Roger Dale Stude, Sabrina Yocono.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita