Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of The Rivals may not quite be what Mrs. Malaprop would call "the very pineapple of perfection," yet the UA show does balance the fruity and the prickly.
The 1775 comedy of manners by the 22-year-old Richard Brinsley Sheridan remains entertaining and even relevant to this day. The florid artificiality of English high society may be a thing of the distant past, but bullying parents, preening incompetents and young people with silly romantic notions will always be fodder for fun.
Some of the publicity for this production has used the term "Restoration comedy" pretty loosely; The Rivals is about 100 years too late to fit into that category. It's certainly satirical and its characters are often frivolous, but the play is by no means as licentious as was the old Restoration norm, even though most of the male characters lust after nubile young women in low bodices.
In the elegant spa town of Bath, domineering Sir Anthony Absolute is arranging for his son, Jack, to marry the highly desirable Lydia Languish. Little does he realize that Jack has already been wooing Lydia in disguise. Lydia, you see, having over-indulged on romantic fiction, has her heart set on a elopement with some penniless man specificaly so she will lose her inheritance, thereby proving that her suitor is interested in her, not her money. Privileged Capt. Jack has been passing himself off as one Ensign Beverly, a fellow of no particular means, in order to meet Lydia's eligibility (or is that ineligibility?) requirement.
Meanwhile, Lydia's devious maid Lucy has redirected so many of Lucy's and "Beverly's" love letters that Lydia's aunt and guardian, the verbally challenged Mrs. Malaprop, comes to believe that she is being wooed by a shiftless Irishman named Sir Lucius O'Trigger, and O'Trigger thinks he's getting sweet notes from Lydia. At the same time, Jack's nerdy friend Acres, a bumpkin in silk suits and lace, has his eye on Lydia, not realizing what Jack is up to.
As if this weren't enough, Lydia's ardent cousin Julia is being romanced by a neurotic young man named Faulkland, whose pessimism and personal insecurity lead him to contrive little tests of Julia's fidelity and devotion that threaten to destroy their relationship.
With so many rivals for so few women's attention, challenges to duels inevitably ensue, although some of the challengers--notably Acres--don't realize exactly whom they're about to mix it up with.
The smooth but not hectic pacing of director Brent Gibbs and some judicious cuts in the script help move this two-and-a-half-hour production along smartly. Fine costumes by Patrick Holt and a good all-purpose set by Michelle Warner do much to enhance the show.
The acting is generally good to excellent. Best of all are D. Lance Marsh as Sir Anthony Absolute, whose tendency to bully is tempered by a nostalgia for his own more romantic youth, and Spencer Dooley as the foppish and rouged Faulkland; clearly, suspicions of his own inadequacy motivate Faulkland's backfiring tests of Julia, and this makes him a sympathetic rather than irritating character.
Dane Corrigan is appealing and suave as Jack, although it's not quite clear how a young man so self-possessed in society can be reduced to quivering jelly whenever his father raises his cane. Casting Andrew Goldwasser as Mrs. Malaprop is something of a stunt, but not an innovative one (closest to home, Arizona Theatre Company wedged Benjamin Stewart into the role some 20 years ago). To Goldwasser's credit, he plays Mrs. Malaprop fairly straight, or as straight as he can with lines like "Sure if I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs." Aside from a few well-placed gasps of delight and grande-dame gestures, Goldwasser wisely lets Mrs. Malaprop speak for herself.
The animated Lindsay Fite as Lydia doesn't quite conform to her character's languishing last name, and she pushes some of her line readings a bit too hard. But in general, she and the rest of the large cast (including James Hesla as Acres, Allison Dragony as Julia and Noah Todd as O'Trigger) offer the clarity and good timing of delivery essential to this play.
What may be a little difficult for modern audiences to understand is how Sheridan can poke fun at the 18th-century idea that novels corrupt the morals of young women, while also mocking the pretensions of women like Mrs. Malaprop who are bunglers of intellect. Happily, Sheridan is an equal-opportunity satirist, and while he manages to skewer each of his characters, he clearly loves every one of them. In this UA production, they are all rivals for our affection.