There are several intertwined stories here. Foremost is that of wealthy young heiress Lydia Languish (Jessica Love), such a fan of romance novels that has decided she must marry a man far below her station, specifically, the poor Ensign Beverly. Ms. Love neatly makes Lydia’s infatuation with the illusions of pop culture feel completely contemporary without ever taking us out of the 18th Century, and similarly shows how Lydia’s petulance is akin that of a modern adolescent.
The Lydia/Beverly love match is mightily opposed by Lydia’s guardian and Aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz, formidable and deadpan). This immortal character compulsively employs words whose meaning she misunderstands, to her friends’ consternation and our delight:
MRS. MALAPROP: …you will promise to forget this fellow—-to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.
Mrs. Malaprop will hear nothing of Ensign Beverly, wishing Lydia instead to marry Captain Jack Absolute (Cary Donaldson), son of wealthy and volatile Sir Anthony Absolute (Dan Daily, whose ‘frenzies’ were the comic highlight of the show).
When Sir Anthony tells his son that a match is in the works, Captain Jack absolutely refuses, provoking Sir Anthony into near apoplexy and disownment. That is, until Jack discovers that the match is to be with Lydia Languish; for it turns out that “Ensign Beverly” is a fiction, in actuality Captain Jack pretending poverty to get the girl. Yes, he’s his own rival; so now how can he appease the elders while keeping Lydia in the dark? It is this elegantly constructed artifice that is the engine of the story.
By itself this might be diverting enough, but now we add the second couple, Julia (Rachel Botchan) and Faulkland (Brad Heberlee). Julia is Lydia’s cousin, as sensible as Lydia is frivolous; the closest thing the show has to a moral center. (The contrast is underscored by the expressively appropriate costumes by Sam Fleming, Lydia all color and light, Julia in muted monochrome.) Julia is devoted to Faulkland in spite of his (unspecified) difficulties. Faulkland, Captain Jack’s friend, seems equally enamored of Julia and yet—there is no better way to put it—the very model of a perfect paranoid, so acutely observed and precisely drawn that his case belongs in the DSM. He begins well enough:
ABSOLUTE: So, then, Faulkland, if you were convinced that Julia were well and in spirits, you would be entirely content.
FAULKLAND: I should be happy beyond measure—I am anxious only for that.
ABSOLUTE: Then to cure your anxiety at once—Miss Melville is in perfect health.
But moments later:
FAULKLAND: Indeed! I did hear that [Julia] had been a little indisposed.
ACRES: False, false, sir—only said to vex you: quite the reverse, I assure you.
FAULKLAND: There, Jack, you see she has the advantage of me; I had almost fretted myself ill.
ABSOLUTE: Now are you angry with your mistress for not having been sick?
And so it goes that Faulkland turns each report to its worst possible meaning, and even once united with Julia in person he is insecure and doubtful of her affections beyond all reason. Heberlee tends to punch important words, but his comic rhythm is perfect, and Botchan gives Julia a quiet and believable centeredness which is often touching. In the end, it’s this secondary story, taking little stage time but almost modern in feeling that gives the comedy a needed gravity.
There are yet two more subplots, one featuring Bob Acres, a fop, (Chris Mixon, fearlessly silly) and the other belligerent Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Sean McNall), both good for laughs but not particularly resonant.
All this space has been given over to plot to encourage those unfamiliar with this play and even those who might think themselves familiar, to drop by the Pearl’s home on 11th Avenue and 42nd Street and give it a look. The Pearl has their hits and their misses, but of the dozen productions of theirs this reviewer has seen this was easily the most fun, followed closely by the 2012 Figaro (also directed by Hal Brooks).
Kudos unmentioned above: Joey Parsons is delightfully two-faced as maidservant Lucy. The wigs by Gerard Kelly are toweringly fabulous yet seamlessly affixed, a pleasurable rarity. Some quibbles about the music: the preshow is an odd mix of bits and pieces, some perfect for the period and some far too old; and the synth sounds used for the inter-scene cues is needlessly aggressive in tone.
In sum, this is no mildly amusing museum piece. Rather, as Wilde described The Importance of Being Earnest, this is “a trivial comedy for serious people,” and as such strongly recommended.
The Rivals (through May 25, 2014)
The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, near 11th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-563-9261 or visit http://www.PearlTheatre.org/tickets
Running time: two hour and 45 minutes, including one intermission.