KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 5, 2000
All right, Welcome to Who wants to be a theater critic! Your first question is: What type of play is the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of “The Rivals”?
A. High comedy. B. Restoration comedy. C. Comedy of Manners. D. Travesty
You don’t have to call me for your lifeline… Here’s the final answer… Travesty. Richard Brinsley Sheridan is rolling over in his grave. And as for the other choices.. any one of them should be right. “The Rivals” is supposed to be high comedy, that is to say, sophisticated humor that emphasizes verbal more than physical action, and appeals to the intellect more than the gut. It’s a comedy of manners, one that mocks and satirizes the mores of the time. And that time was 1775, when the young Sheridan, a mere 24, penned the play. Though he lived in the 18th century, his creations are often considered to be Restoration Comedies, those written in the latter half of the 17th century, when the House of Stuart returned to the throne of England.
In Restoration comedies, there are typically stock characters; the fop, the pretender, the old man with a young wife, the old woman trying to be young. And they often have names that describe their penchants and personalities — Fainall, Foible, Sir Fopling Flutter. The most enduring of all is Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, whose name we still invoke, to refer to anyone who tries to sound educated, important and intelligent while unintentionally mangling the language, substituting a multisyllabic word that sounds perilously close to the intended one. In this version, she makes a memorable male-bashing blunder: “Men,” she declaims, “are all Bavarians.” Very true to the essence of Sheridan. But thanks to co-adapters Tim Irving and director Sean Murray, the rest of the play descends directly for the cheap laugh. It’s set not in bucolic Bath but in downtown Solana Beach, replete with topical references, karaoke, audience singalongs, disco music and physical shtick, not to mention repeated riffs on the character named Fag.
The lovely, headstrong heiress Lydia Languish has become an airheaded Valley Girl, the royal Sir Anthony Absolute is now a CEO of absolutewidgets.com. Only Mrs. Malaprop, though dressed like a high-toned suburban housewife, remains untarnished, and Rosina Reynolds is perfectly imperious and pretentious in the role. The rest of the cast, including the very credible Manuel Fernandez, seems to be having a ball, though it does get silly and it does go on. The love stories, like the performances, are so overblown and exaggerated, the play seems to be less about human folly than dramatic ones, and its frequent references to the 1970s made it seem more dated than the 1770s original.
Murray’s set design is aptly whimsical, a garishly colored local scene that looks like David Hockney on drugs. The whole enterprise would offer a lot more fun if it were a lot shorter, and if it simply divorced itself from Sheridan entirely. As I think they once said in the Colonies: Adaptation without Restoration is tyranny.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.