The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Mark Lamos. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music by Robert Waldman. Sound by Scott Stauffer. Choreography by Seán Curran. Cast in alphabetical order: Emily Bergl, Barbara Caruso, Richard Easton, Herb Foster, David Furr, Malcolm Ingram, Dana Ivey, Matt Letscher, David Manis, Brian Murray, Keira Naughton, Laura Odeh, Carrie Preston, Jeremy Shamos, Jim Stanek, Jim True-Frost, James Urbaniak, P.J. Verhoest, David Christopher Wells, Sarah Zimmerman.
That chill wind blowing isn't because of the increasingly harsh winter weather. It's emanating from Lincoln Center, where a new production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy of manners The Rivals just opened at the Vivian Beaumont. While it has an icier air about it than is ideal this time of year, there are a few glorious moments when enough sun shines through the ominous cloud cover to provide a bit of much-needed warmth.
For this examination of class and status in elbow-rubbing Bath, England, director Mark Lamos and set designer John Lee Beatty have concocted a set that lovingly suggests both a town square and the interiors of the affluents' dwellings, while sacrificing neither the appeal of the former nor the intimacy of the latter. Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski sees to it that the borders of the playing space are perfectly sized to match the situation.
But most of the performers lack Kaczorowski's knack for that, and get lost even in the smaller scenes. In a theater as unforgiving as the Vivian Beaumont, and in a show as comparatively small as The Rivals, this borders on deadly, and about half of the show feels in need of resuscitation. (That's something some members of the audience might be able to relate to during the production's more tediously expository moments, generally in the first act.)
That can be a serious problem with plays in which the plot and overriding concerns are primarily human in size. Unlike other Vivian Beaumont offerings of recent memory - Henry IV, King Lear, The Frogs - The Rivals deals with larger issues only obliquely; questions about the relative importance of love and money, obligation and honor, and the interplay between perception and reality are asked and answered on an almost exclusively tiny scale.
As woven by Sheridan into his story, these concepts entertain and enlighten, but never tower. Here, that story - which concerns the popular literature-fueled desire of young Lydia Languish to marry a poor soldier, though she's unaware that the man she loves is actually rich - moves in fits and starts, propelled mostly by the more established members of the cast. Specifically, Dana Ivey as Lydia's Aunt, Mrs. Malaprop; Richard Easton as Lydia's beloved's father, Sir Anthony Absolute; and Brian Murray as the meddling Irishman, Sir Lucius O'Trigger.
Whenever one of these three steps onstage - or, for the happiest moments, more than one - you're guaranteed a much better, more exciting time, even when that work (particularly from Murray) borders on the perfunctory. Easton is firm and commanding, and Ivey so joyously sinks her teeth into a woman utterly convinced of her own intellectual superiority but who can't correctly utter most of the florid expressions she insists on using. You can't help but feel you're in loving, experienced hands whenever any one of them takes the stage.
The characterizations provided by their younger castmates are overall less devoted and detailed, proving problematic for a show that's never seemed quite as fragile as it does here. Emily Bergl (Lydia), Matt Letscher (the object of her affections, Captain Jack Absolute), Keira Naughton (Lydia's maid), Jim True-Frost (Jack's friend Faulkland), and Carrie Preston (Julia, Sir Anthony's ward and the woman Faulkland falls for) are all young, attractive, and perky, as if fresh from an MTV-produced Shakespeare in the Park. Yet, even as decked out in Jess Goldstein's attractive period costumes, none is particularly convincing or original in his or her performance.
That's what The Rivals - or any play - needs to rise to the next level; that it's provided so bountifully only by the three veterans makes its absence elsewhere more damaging. Ivey, for example, makes the admittedly foolproof role of Malaprop her own, savoring each ridiculous saying (one of the sillier: "If I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs") with the juicy, sandy caress that only she can manage. If Easton and Murray's roles aren't as flashy, they're still fully and creatively fleshed-out. All three ensure that no one else will ever play these roles quite the same way again.
That ability to so inhabit and redefine even roles this familiar is part of what defines a star. These younger actors are hardly untalented - many have distinguished themselves admirably in recent New York productions - but they can't inject enough excitement or humor into what they do to hold their own. Lamos's generally lackadaisical direction seems oriented around letting the actors do what they do best; for most productions of The Rivals, that would be enough. But with so many performers who probably don't yet know what they really do best, the resulting show is lopsided and indistinct.
Except, that is, for the nice physical production, some charming original music (composed by Robert Waldman), and the impressive work of Ivey, Easton, and Murray. Their dedication to bringing a real sense of May into the depths of this December is much appreciated. You won't need your heavy jacket all the time, but it's too bad that with a show this potentially sunny you need it at all.