by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The Rivals -- A Poor Revival
by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, NYC
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden January 10,2005
Why anyone would want to revive "The Rivals" at this time is a mystery. Written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775, and for centuries, accepted by English scholars as a hilarious play, "The Rivals," has been a favorite example (by professors ) of a scintillating comedy of manners. Maybe when one reads it, this may be true. But on stage in this modern age, when audiences are intensely interested in images, "The Rivals" is dead on arrival.
Sheridan uses all the usual devices to create what must have been in his day a very funny plot. But now that we have seen many such comedies, I find the writing and the plot line almost a cliche. You have the adorable couple who must hide their love; the aristocratic and domineering aunt, the famous Mrs Malaprop, who supposedly is the funniest character in the play; the loud and boisterous, controlling father who arranges a worthy (money) match for his son to Mrs. Malaprop's niece, heiress to a fortune; and the so-called hero, the romantic lad secretly in love with the heiress, who outwits his father by posing as a rival to himself.
So what is wrong with all that? Everything. Because the plot is spoken about, not dramatized. The exposition is endless. The characters stand around, two at a time, and talk and talk about what want, what they will do to get it, and off they go, only to cue in another couple--who do the same. And so it goes, one couple, on, one couple, off. If you want to stage a play with that much boring talk, you need several things: actors who can speak a uniform clear English; actors who have splendid voices; actors who can embody a style that befits the eighteenth century English farce. Director Mark Lamos, who has a good reputation not only in theater, but in staging opera, has done nothing to give the company a unifying style that would catch the eye of the audience rather than the ear.
The English comedy of manners cannot be done by actors who just react and do nothing more. The company must bring a certain stylishness, a certain specialty that this play demands. Even the set by the well known designer, John Lee Beatty, is heavy and gray and singularly unappealing: it has no class, no color and no definition. It adds nothing to the ambiance of these middle class yokels whose main ambition is to marry off their children for money.
As for the actors: I suppose it is the height of snobbery to admit that American actors find it difficult to do this kind of British play. But it's true, maybe they cannot. At least not in this production. Most of the actors have feeble voices, with little theatrical resonance. Most of them sound as if they are in a classroom at Actors Studio mumbling along in a realistic Stanislavsky way. Clear articulation would be a help. Only Richard Easton, in the role of the blustering arrogant father is able to hold one's attention. His portrayal of the noxious father who thinks he is dominating his son, is the only true comic portrayal in this production. (At least he knows how to use his voice). Brian Murray, on the other hand, another established and accomplished actor, shuffles around the stage, giving the impression he would rather be somewhere else--certainly not in this play. Even Dana Ivey, acclaimed in the press for her Mrs. Malaprop, fails to elicit a singular performance. She is full of cliches and posturing and her malapropos, while funny on the page, are often thrown away by the actress's trying too hard to be amusing. Strangely enough, she seems like an poor imitation of the terrific actors on PBS' Masterpiece Theater. Which incidentally is the best program for watching how the British play the classics. When they are portraying someone or something in the 18th century, you can believe it is the eighteenth century.
All of which leads me to wonder yet again, why Lincoln Center cannot do better. I'll give them credit for trying, but that's hardly enough. Maybe they should produce plays more suited to American actors. Eighteenth-century comedy of manners is not a good choice. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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