18th century British comedy resonates still

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Aaron Levin

In 1775, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan found himself in Bath, England, with expensive tastes and little money, but with a very sharp pen. At the time, theater in Britain generally meant lifeless, sentimental, oppressively genteel comedies full of stock characters and tired plots.

To make some money, Sheridan wrote The Rivals, and he succeeded at his goal by lampooning all the familiar characters of the day — both on the stage and in the audience.

In CenterStage’s new production of The Rivals, director David Schweizer matches Sheridan’s witty dialogue with plenty of onstage energy, physical laughs and all-too-relevant humor.

A comedic masquerade

Bath in 1775 was no place for the conventional. Londoners hungry for diversion traveled to the city to escape the stifling class distinctions of the British capital while taking the waters bubbling from its hot springs.

Sheridan quickly lays out the plot in that milieu: While stationed in Bath, Captain Jack Absolute (Manu Narayan) has disguised himself as the humble “Ensign Beverly,” hoping to win the heart of Lydia Languish (ZoĆ« Winters) by virtue of his noble character, not his station in life.

Inspired by popular novels of the day, Lydia seeks a pure, romantic love. Jack’s stratagem works. Lydia falls madly in love with “Beverly,” never suspecting that he is really a high-born officer.

The fun begins as the other characters intrude into this cozy, if inevitably precarious, relationship. While the young couple may seem to lie at the core of the play, two older characters drive the real action.

Actor David Margulies does a superb job as Jack’s father, the imperious Sir Anthony Absolute, shifting gears smoothly from oily schemer to volcanic patriarch and back again. He wants to marry off his son to Mrs. Malaprop’s wealthy niece — who is none other than Lydia. (The “rivals” are, thus, one and the same man.)

Jack resists because he knows that Lydia will reject him once the truth is known. His apoplectic father threatens to disinherit him if he does not accede.

Tongue-twisting fun

The language-mangling Mrs. Malaprop, of course, is Sheridan’s gift to linguistic history. Kristine Nielsen plays her to the eye-popping hilt, occupying the stage like a great, yellow-brocaded sailing ship. No subtlety here.

“I will forfeit my malevolence for ever,” she intones majestically at one time. “Our retrospect will be all to the future,” at another. Don’t worry if you don’t understand. Mrs. M doesn’t, either.

The play’s one serious note comes in an interchange between two secondary characters, Jack’s friend, Faulkland (Clifton Duncan) and Lydia’s cousin and confidant, Julia (Caroline Hewitt).

Julia sustains her true love for Faulkland, but he is so insecure that he must constantly put her to the test. When she finds out that his phony plan to go away for a long time is all a lie, she breaks up with him — the production’s most affecting moment. Naturally, this being comedy, the two reconcile and marry at the end, as do Jack and Lydia.

The principals’ foolishness is abetted by a constellation of supporting characters. There’s a social-climbing country squire in a salmon-colored wig, and a strutting, Brillo-haired, down-at-the-heels Irish baronet.

The five servants in the play (played by three actors) remind one of the servants in classical Roman comedy. They are no one’s fools and know exactly what is going on, even as their masters and mistresses delude themselves and try to do the same to others.

Sheridan may have written The Rivals more than two centuries ago, but In CenterStage’s production, the frothy mixture of silly romance, fortune-hunting busy-bodies, and outraged parents still resonates with 21st century audiences.

The Rivals is at CenterStage, 700 N. Calvert St., through Oct. 30. Tickets are $10 to $55 and can be ordered by calling (410) 332-0033 or online at www.centerstage.org/rivals.

Patrons 62 and older can buy half-price tickets starting at 9 a.m. on the day of the show, subject to availability. The discount is not available for Saturday evening performances or for the final week of the show.

Aaron Levin is a Baltimore freelance writer.