Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s "The Rivals" (1774) may not be as highly regarded as his next more successful and more frequently revived play "The School for Scandal" (1777), but what a delight to re-discover the virtues of this Restoration comedy of manners through the wiles of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. That it is a beautifully designed production almost doesn’t matter in the light of so many dazzling performances. Nevertheless, it is three hours long (get out the pruning shears) and even under the wonderfully finicky direction of Matthew Arbour, it begins to test the endurance of the audience no matter how it is obliged to laugh. However, there is no denying that each clearly enunciated syllable is bound to prick up our ears.
As if they were all to the manor of polite society born, the company appears to relish the pretensions and the pretexts of their predicaments as much as they take pleasure in their broad characterizations and florid language. When it comes to language, has there ever been a character in dramatic literature to rival Mrs. Malaprop’s decimation of the King’s English, and whose misuse of the language has formally entered the lexicon as a "malapropism"? At the moment, I cannot think of any other actress who would do more with just one face and figure as the seriously interfering aunt with the absurd vocabulary than Monique Fowler, who is making her first appearance with the Shakespeare Theater. With her empowering presence, the idiosyncratic tick in her shoulders, her tortured expressions, and generous misapplication of words, Fowler plays this "queen of the dictionary" as "the pineapple of politeness."
Seen as a parody of conventional romance, "The Rivals" never infers that we are to take the convoluted affairs of its two sets of lovers seriously. But watching not two but four young earnest romantics take their petty quandaries so seriously makes certain demands on the audience. We suspect from the outset that we are not meant to be overly concerned with the fate of Lydia, a young lady of fortune, who idiotically believes that she should marry a penniless suitor rather than a nobleman approved by her parents. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the wealthy young gentleman who adores her, Captain Jack Absolute, has no qualms about pretending to be a poor naval officer named Ensign Beverely.
For contrast, there is the ardent but unjustifiably jealous Faulkland, who is tormented by the thought that his beloved Julia might be having a good time whenever he isn’t around. For her part, Julia is getting fed up with Faulkland’s irrational and insulting insinuations. Although she tends to squeak when she speaks, Kate Dawson adorns Lydia’s foolish idealism with an abundance of beguiling charm. As Captain Jack Absolute, Steve Wilson obliges our highest expectations with a stalwart performance that is subtly mischievous. While Faulkland’s jealousy appears as a one-note motif, the bespectacled Christian Conn invests the role with a touching hint of the pathetic. As his bewildered and also bespectacled love, Julia, Mary Bacon breezes through the bewildering social melee until she makes an emotionally gratifying turnaround, finally taking Faulkland to task for his unwarranted behavior. Yet these four characters that Sheridan uses to propel his comic spoof of 17th century etiquette and propriety cannot help but be upstaged by Mrs. Malaprop.
There is a plenty to laugh at and a degree of amusement watching the coarse antics of Jeffrey M. Bender as the clownishly-attired highly eccentric country gentleman Bob Acres. Sir Anthony Absolute’s hot-tempered yammering about the over-education of women and the perceived insolence of his son, Jack, is bellowed in bravura style by Richard Bourg. And was there ever a doubt that James Michael Reilly would find a way to instill the misguided-in-love Sir Lucius O’Trigger with a heavy dose of Irish affectation when he discovers that the missives he thought were being sent between him and Lydia were, in fact, between him and Mrs. Malaprop.
Mainly it is the interference of Lydia’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, and Jack’s father, Sir Anthony, that puts the comedy into gear by complicating the young lovers’ path to marriage. Naturally their plot to unite Lydia and Jack is unwittingly detoured by Lydia, who is unaware of Jack’s real identity. Sheridan’s play resonates with supercilious smartness, and the postures and putdowns of societal protocol for both the masters and their devoted servants are legion as well as lengthy. The latter are played with a hunger for juicy gossip and more by Derek Wilson, as Jack’s precociously foppish valet, Fag, and Kristie Dale Sanders, as Lucy, Lydia’s delightfully duplicitous maid.
Designer James Wolk has created a lovely pastel-hued illusion of Bath, England, in the mid-1700s. Brian Russman’s extravagantly fringed and frilly costumes, stunning in the glow of Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, are a complement for the extravagantly over-the-top actors who don them.
"The Rivals," through Sunday, August 27, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, at the Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave, Madison. $36 to $50. Call 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.