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The Rivals

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy The Rivals is, on the textual level, about as funny today as it must have been when first presented. In stripping away the layers of artifice from human interactions to reveal the core of either idealism or realistic common sense beneath, Sheridan has explicitly defined the boundaries of an eternal struggle for humanity: What Is versus What Might Be. That applies well to the Pearl production, too.

As for the play itself, it's easy to laugh at the characters' various machinations. The finest comedy is always based in truth, and many of the characters amplify a different take on the weird and wacky world of social and romantic discourse; Sheridan was a deft satirist. His most famous and obvious creation here is Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz), who has such great faith in her vocabulary and rhetorical abilities that she never seems to notice she uses the wrong word whenever she needs to emphasize her point the most.

Yet Sheridan has plenty of additional targets: The show's central figure, Lydia Languish (Rachel Botchan), has learned everything she knows about love from reading torrid romance novel-like books and will accept nothing less than a perfect, poverty-stricken romance, while Faulkland (Christopher Moore), a secondary character, is consumed with worry and jealousy about his own intended, whom he subjects to constant tests of loyalty due to his own idealism.

This, of course, relegates their loved ones to defensive postures - Faulkland's Julia (Eunice Wong) headstrong and Lydia's Jack Absolute (Sean McCall) determined. He, especially, has to be: born of wealth Lydia wants nothing to do with, he's assumed the role of her dream lover Beverley, and, as such, fallen afoul of Lydia-chaser Bob Acres (Dominic Cuskern) as Beverley, and romantic gadabout Lucius O'Trigger (Dan Daily), who is willing to fight Jack to the death for Lydia's hand after having been mislead by her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop.

Robert Neff Williams, in directing the production, seldom successfully untangles the show's potentially confusing and circuitous stories. To his credit, he keeps the action moving fluidly: his characters seem to be in a constant circular progression around the boundaries of Sarah Lambert's platform-and-curtain set, and he wastes no time in getting a new scene ready as the old one is ending. His work is efficient, but it leaves both the actors and audience little time to savor, absorb, or revel.

This makes the more moving and funnier moments a harder sell, the production often floating around aimlessly in between. Schultz's performance is hilarious, but doesn't it have to be? How can any actress worth her salt not bring down the house with lines as delicious as "He is the very pineapple of politeness" or "As headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile"? The other actors need to work harder for their laughs, but the jokes seldom have enough room (or time) to land as they should.

Celeste Ciulla as the enterprising maid to Lydia and Malaprop and Robert Hock as Jack's father come the closest, netting some of the production's finest non-Malaprop laughs. Moore is appealing as the wide-eyed Faulkland and Botchan as the impossibly idealistic Lydia, though their partners, Wong and McNall, tend to come across more stiffly than is perhaps ideal. As Lucius, Dan Daily certainly isn't stiff, but his slightly wavering Irish accent and somewhat watery portrayal don't make too much of an impression.

Then again, little in this production does. Of course, there's the delightfully batty Schultz and Frank Champa's beautiful and colorful costumes, but not much else works to set this version of The Rivals apart. It's a solid, intelligent, and well-considered production that feels, at times, a bit too grounded for its own good. Despite a number of opportunities, Schultz's malapropisms are about all that really fly.

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Pearl Theatre Company
Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals
Through November 23
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one intermission
Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark's Place between First and Second Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.598.9802