Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" follows in the daunting footsteps of Shakespeare's most sparkling and plot-thick comedies, while also pointing the way toward the irrepressible Oscar Wilde of "The Importance of Being Earnest."
The opening night in London in 1775 apparently wasn't trouble-free (something about fruit being thrown at an actor), and the playwright referred to "the little puny critics" in his preface to a hastily revised version that was back onstage a couple of weeks later.
But "The Rivals" quickly became quite the unrivaled hit. No wonder. It's funny. And so is the Center Stage production, which ranks among the strongest efforts from the company in recent years.
Those convinced that there are deep, philosophical truths underlining Sheridan's comedy of manners, and that too much frivolity is a detrimental, even destructive, thing, may be unimpressed by this all-out effort to amuse. The rest of us can just sit back and have a rollicking good time, comfortable with the notion that not every comic work must conceal something terribly profound.
Director David Schweizer puts the emphasis squarely and unapologetically on the froth, an approach reinforced by the whimsy of Caleb Wertenbaker's scenic design and, especially, by the deliciously colorful costumes by David Burdick. There's even a musical contribution to the farcical angle from Ryan Rumery's rocking, harpsichord-led musical interludes and other bits of sonic humor.
Brisk pacing keeps the assorted plot strands fluttering nicely. That momentum even adds spark to the less interesting of those strands.
The main focal point of "The Rivals" is the affair of Capt. Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish. There's a slight complication — Lydia, inspired by romantic novels, wants to love a man of modest means, so Jack has pretended to be such a one, named Beverly. Jack's father, Sir Anthony Absolute, causes a fresh wrinkle when he determines to pick a wife for Jack, namely the very same Lydia.
Into the mix come a county squire named Bob Acres and an Irish nobleman named Sir Lucius O'Trigger; Jack's buddy Faulkland, who adores Lydia's cousin, Julia; a few wily servants; and, above all, Lydia's aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, who never met a noun she couldn't misuse.
Much of the success of the staging comes from how every character is richly outfitted with personality and, in most cases, idiosyncrasies of one kind of another — ticks, snorts, bobbling heads, trembling torsos, popping or rolling eyes.
Kristine Nielsen makes a marvelous Mrs. Malaprop, as flighty as the butterfly design that flutters all over her dress and hair, matching the wallpaper of her chambers.
With vibrant facial gestures that recall the great comedic actresses Zazu Pitts and Mary Boland, along with a dollop of Dame Edna, Nielsen has a field day with the part. She lights up the stage at every appearance and sends the mangled observations rolling out with terrific aplomb ("the pineapple of politeness," "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile").
Another stellar turn comes from David Margulies as Sir Anthony. He does the father-knows-best bluster exceedingly well, delivering the several tirades against Jack in such pyrotechnic fashion that you expected to see smoke rising from his ears. Margulies also uses his melodious voice like a seasoned singer, offering many a telling nuance. It's a powerhouse performance.
Manu Narayan brings abundant brio to the role of Jack. Zoe Winters puts across the petulant side of Lydia with particular spark, but also ensures that the charm of the character gets attention, too, as in the speech on love in Act 2.
Jimmy Kieffer is a hoot as Acres, especially after donning a wig in a shade that hasn't been seen since Lucille Ball. Evan Zes struts about amusingly as Sir Lucius, chomping contentedly on the scenery at every opportunity.
As the love couple nearly overshadowed by all the craziness going on around them, Caroline Hewitt (Julia) and Clifton Duncan (Faulkland) make the most of their scenes.
Danny Gavigan doesn't just portray two servants; he becomes a kind of an overgrown Puck, introducing scenes, supervising the rearrangement of furniture, winking to the audience. It's a shtick that could grow tiresome, but Gavigan's winsome, buoyant manner makes it work, adding one more bright element in a sparkling production.
If you go
"The Rivals" runs through Oct. 30 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$55. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.