With the actors -- led by the indispensable Kristine Nielsen -- whirling about set designer Caleb Wertenbaker's exaggerated bright blue murals (which resemble a country house wallpaper on acid) to the inspired accompaniment of a psychedelic-sounding onstage harpsichord, the production occasionally seems to tip its powdered wig to that indelible 1960s TV oddity The Monkees.
Among the players in this convoluted tale of daffy misapprehensions, would-be seductions, and identity-switching are Lydia Languish (Zoë Winters) a romance novel-obsessed young woman whose busy social life divides between three suitors: Captain Jack Absolute (Manu Narayan), who is pretending to be a soldier, Lucius O'Trigger (Evan Zes), a low-born Irishman, and Bob Acres (Jimmy Kieffer), a bewigged, country gentleman and buffoon.
Naturally, Lydia comes with the inevitable guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Nielsen) a widow of a certain age given to a non-stop stream of grandly erroneous pronouncements. There are also a bevy of assorted friends, servants and relatives -- all of whom discover, naturally, that the course of true love never runs smooth.
The production, however, mostly does run smooth, particularly when the sublime Nielsen takes center stage. To watch her wave her butterfly-festooned arms (the colorful and witty costumes are by David Burdick) in ineffable despair while blithely declaiming in most delicious erratum is to watch a high priestess of stage comedy at blissful full tilt.
Close behind her is the expert David Margulies as Sir Anthony Absolute, small of stature but big of personality, constantly thwarted and fussbudgety. Of the remaining cast -- which rarely rises to Nielsen and Margulies' standards -- Winters does manage a few choice frolicsome moments and Danny Gavigan has fun as servants to two masters.
Conversely, Narayan lacks the comic brio and romantic dash essential for Jack -- a role that calls for a young Kevin Kline type -- and Zes affects an odd, shuffling physicality as O'Trigger, seemingly more concerned with earning cheap laughs than creating a round character.
While this version of The Rivals may not exactly be unrivaled by previous productions of the play, it nevertheless manages to spin on its own comic axis.
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