The Rivals is one of the best comedies ever written for absolutely no purpose, one of the rare instances of pure high spirits expressed in literature. Classically, comedy is aggressive; you expect to find anger, or at least moral indignation, behind it. But The Rivals is witty without being angry, unlike even the later Sheridan masterpiece with which it makes a matched pair, The School for Scandal; there at least the author had topics on which to wax indignant—moral hypocrisy and malicious gossip—albeit good-humoredly. But in The Rivals, even the cruelest characters are still benign, and their most maddening foibles rarely harm anyone but themselves. As targets of ridicule, they were already antique. By the time Sheridan wrote, the swoony novels that make Lydia Languish long to elope with a poor man rather than marry a rich one had been satirically shredded decades earlier. And women’s education, having provided the readership for said novels, was long since a done deal: The miseducated lady who massacres the language was a steal from a popular play by Sheridan’s mother.
Sheridan’s real achievement, quite simply, was teaching comedy to laugh again. The early 18th century, overreacting to Restoration licentiousness, had built unsightly speed bumps of sentimental rhetoric onto the comic driveway. Sheridan, writing three quarters of a century later, cleared the path for laughter. For the first time since London’s theaters reopened in 1660, English audiences could go to a play expecting to laugh at ordinary human beings simply for being themselves, not victims of rakes or targets of satire. The characters in The Rivals are people like us, though probably nicer on the whole; the foolish things they do are, with allowance for two centuries’ worth of technological advance, not at all unlike our own lapses. It makes sense that they’re all close acquaintances from some unnamed backwater, and that the confusions arise from their being displaced to a fashionable resort town: The Rivals is a vacation comedy; seeing it again is like escaping urban life to spend quality time with some wacky but endearing upstate friends.
The friends don’t exactly unpack their hearts to us in Mark Lamos’s production, which seems to view Sheridan’s play as an achievement of style instead of substance—or rather, as a work in which style equals substance. Everything is as polished and pretty as can be. John Lee Beatty’s turreted unit set suggests a toffee tin in the shape of a Georgian mansion; Jess Goldstein’s fresh-as-paint costumes make the actors look like the candied treats inside, wrapped according to their various flavors. With a few exceptions, the actors don’t seem to be living the characters’ feelings so much as describing them. But—this is where Lamos’s approach proves its value—articulate description, lucidly animated and gracefully varied, never gets in the way of a work constructed, like Sheridan’s, within a system of classical rhetoric. The 18th century was a time when words had value as well as meaning. Trained to listen, audiences went to the theater to relish what might be described as the market fluctuations of that value, changing with the weight authors, or their characters, placed on a turn of phrase—an arrangement that gives Mrs. Malaprop’s massacring of sense additional point.
As a result, the current production, though never giving you the play’s full, freewheeling spirit, also never subtracts from its sense. You get a lot of appealing actors, an eyeful of brightly lit (by Peter Kaczorowski) decorativeness, and the substance of Sheridan’s story, with minimal muddling and a great many of the laughs that he planted in the script like land mines; the cast has only to say them and hear the resulting explosions. There are probably more exciting, and more joyous, ways to perform The Rivals, but Lamos’s policy of emotional noninterference has powerful arguments in its favor—clearly preferable to the destruction any of today’s fake-chic directorial tactics would have wrought.
Lamos’s worst sin, a very mild one indeed, is to tone the Irishness of Brian Murray’s Sir Lucius O’Trigger down to a faint murmur, presumably to avoid offending Hibernian Americans. This is unwise because it leaves Murray with comparatively little to play: Sir Lucius is a dialect-spouting ethnic joke, all blarney and bravado. And Murray can’t replace the blarney with his specialty, choleric rage, because this play’s rages belong to Sir Anthony Absolute, and Richard Easton, doffing his normally mild onstage persona, is ranting them handsomely. Hence, Murray must fall back on cajoling without begorras, which, even this skillfully done, is like playing Shylock as a Unitarian.
Apart from this minor shortfall, Lamos’s actors ride the stylistic surface of the play very smoothly. Dana Ivey’s Mrs. Malaprop, feathered headdress waving and arms extended, is of course way out in front of the pack, but Emily Bergl and Matt Letscher give a good rendering of Lydia’s self-indulgence and Jack’s embarrassment at his own conniving; Jim True-Frost and Carrie Preston have caught the link between Falkland and Julia’s hypersensitive quibbling and modern neurosis; and Jeremy Shamos’s bright-spirited Bob Acres, though more goofball than bumpkin, brings exactly the consoling quality Sheridan intended: In such a well-spoken, well-behaved world, the character who does everything wrong is an incredible relief.