It was just over a year ago that Jack O'Brien's production of Henry IV opened in the same Lincoln Center venue and proved to longtime skeptics that William Shakespeare can be treated with supreme confidence this side of the Atlantic. Now LCT execs have collected a large cadre of theater artists to prove that 18th-century English comedies of manners tackled by erstwhile colonials can also match the best efforts of the motherland. Look, I saw Peter Wood's 1983 superb treatment of The Rivals at London's Royal National Theatre, and I know what I'm talking about when I say it has met its rival. It's on the Vivian Beaumont stage, which is perhaps the closest Manhattan space in size and shape to the National's Olivier, where Wood sent his version scampering.
Most die-hard theatergoers know about Brinsley's play, which he wrote when he was 23, but not everyone has seen it. (I'm wracking my admittedly faulty memory for the last Manhattan sighting and am drawing a blank.) When theater followers think about the play, they most likely recall Mrs. Malaprop (Dana Ivey here), the character who inserted her name into the language as a result of hilariously misusing polysyllabic words. They may not recall she's an aunt to Lydia Languish (Emily Bergl) and that the languishing but not unspritely Lydia is being romanced by Jack Absolute (Matt Letscher), who's using the pseudonym Ensign Beverley to appear penurious for reasons having to do with young love often being blissfully foolish.
Other plot points Sheridan aficionados may not instantly reclaim is that Jack's dad, Sir Anthony Absolute (Richard Easton), arranges an alliance with Lydia through Mrs. Malaprop. All the while Mrs. Malaprop thinks she's carrying on an amorous correspondence with Irish sojourner, Lucius O'Trigger (Brian Murray). O'Trigger, however, believes he's wooing Lydia. Meanwhile back at other digs on John Lee Beatty's sumptuous recreation of 1775 Bath, Jack's friend, Faulkland (Jim True-Frost), insists on finding fault with the pluperfect object of his affection, Julia Melville (Carrie Preston), and gets in hot water for his troubles. Then there's country bumpkin Bob Acres (Jeffrey Shamos), who's devoted to Jack but intent on dueling Ensign Beverley over Lydia's hand.
So Sheridan has a whole lotta storyline going on with much first-act exposition that audiences need pay close attention to. (Sheridan divided his venture into five acts; LCT divides it into two.) And there are a number of wily servants, like Lydia's Lucy (Keira Naughton) and Jack's Fag (James Urbaniak), throwing monkey wrenches into their employers' plans. Beyond this, audiences attending to refresh their recollections or appreciate Sheridan's budding genius for the first time need only know that the youthful playwright was wise beyond his years about the importance of humankind's getting out of its own way in order to find true happiness with another member of the species. Audiences are also treated to an implied comment on irony from the astute Sheridan. His good-natured bad news is that having a sense of irony in the midst of irony-free boobs is not guaranteed protection against complicating one's life.
It won't startle anyone to hear that old pros like Dana Ivey, Richard Easton, and Brian Murray are perfection in their roles; many moments in their performances are delightful. To give the perpendiculars, as Mrs. Malaprop might say, Ivey's turn as the silly woman is wonderful for its refusal to underline her abundant malapropisms. They fall trippingly off her tongue and land on the funny bone. Ivey also looks a subtle joke in Jess Goldstein's costumes. (Goldstein's outfitted everyone in bright silks, satins, and feathers, and everything looks even brighter under Peter Kaczorowski's lights.) Brian Murray is a stitch as Lucius O'Trigger, but what else is new? What might be new is his fun with the double-take. No, make that his introduction to acting technique of the equally risible single-and-a-half take, which you have to see to adore. Richard Easton's Sir Anthony Absolute with rouged cheeks (Angelina Avallone designed the noteworthy make-up) is another instance of the actor's broad palette. Sir Anthony is a marvel of mood swings, and Easton gets them all.
So are Jim True-Frost as a confused Faulkland and Jeremy Shamos as a raring-to-go-until-his-bluff-is-called Bob Acres. Both Emily Bergl and Carrie Preston have done good-to-better work in recent years, but their performances as, respectively, Lydia and Julia bristle with finesse. And they both have flashing eyes. I'd say director Lamos would do no harm by pulling all the actors back a notch, but even if he doesn't, he's helmed a peerless Rivals.