Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s career falls right in-between Shakespeare’s and Oscar Wilde’s, so if you know Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest, you’ll already have a decent sense of The Rivals: Captain Jack Absolute (Cary Donaldson), the wealthy son of Sir Anthony Absolute (Dan Daily), has fallen in love with Lydia Languish (Jessica Love). But Lydia, an heiress herself, is obsessed with books with titles like The Fatal Connexion and The Mistakes of the Heart. She dreams of spurning her inheritance for a man unworthy of her rank, a man who would prove anathema to her aunt and guardian Mrs. Malaprop (Carol Schultz)—whose name is the source of the word, not the other way around. Thus, Jack must “make love” to her as Ensign Beverley, a man whose poverty she can fetishize with the help of her sensation novels. “All this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read,” mourns Sir Anthony. “Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have taught them the black art as their alphabet!”
Meanwhile, Jack’s friend Faulkland (Brad Heberlee) is having troubles of his own. He is in love with Julia Melville (Rachel Botchan), but his notions of how a woman should behave are driving him mad. If she misses him when he is gone, he is in agony over her pain; if she doesn’t, he explodes at her inconstancy. If she doesn’t forgive him for his emotional tyranny, he is miserable; if she does, he questions her conduct, as “women should never sue for reconciliation.” As might be expected, The Rivals culminates with a series of duels that are the result of farcical mistaken identities, though Sheridan’s satire of men’s proprietary relationship to women is surprisingly fresh almost two hundred fifty years later. Indeed, one might rather question what reading has done to his male characters rather than his female ones.
“Well, this is what they do best,” an elderly woman said during intermission, and it is hard to disagree. The Pearl Theatre is fully capable of handling any kind of classical revival, but they most successfully utilize their talents in these Upstairs, Downstairs-style comedies like The Marriage of Figaro or This Side of Neverland, the kind where servants outsmart their masters and men make utter fools of themselves while trying to enforce the patriarchy. Mr. Daily is superb as Sir Anthony, bristling like a peacock at any challenge to his authority but overwhelmed with mirth any time he misinterprets his son’s situation as, yes, one of failed sexual aggression: boys being boys, of course. Ms. Schultz, too, manages to inject more comedy into Mrs. Malaprop that she deserves—even Shakespeare was incapable of making these parts funny—and actually brings an air of dignity to her misguided classism and verbal blunderings. And Ms. Botchan is thoroughly heartbreaking, her Julia a clever prankster but also a woman who can’t help but love her hapless chauvinist; the scene in which she condemns Faulkland for his ridiculous standards is one of the highlights of the show.
After the premiere of The Rivals, Sheridan wrote of his cast, “their merit has been so striking and uncontroverted, as to call for the warmest and truest applause from a number of judicious audiences, [that] the poet’s after-praise comes like the feeble acclamation of a child to close the shouts of a multitude.” I feel the same about my praise, but here it is nonetheless.