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The Rivals
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:13 pm - The Rivals
1

I saw on September 19th at the Pearl Theatre in the last preview before its premiere of this production, the famous comedy, The Rivals by the estimable Richard Sheridan.
The Pearl at 80 St, Marks Place, like its neighbor the Jean Cocteau Theatre conched in its Gaudi-like manse, is chartered, set up handsomely with a formidable list of patrons to produce repertoire at very reasonable prices, often including plays from Shakespeare through Marivaux as well as the giants of Restoration Comedy to give New Yorkers, never known for their hunger for anything remotely old, a sense of the history of Western theatre.
The Pearl is a true repertory theatre; its core actors work steadily in play after play. Such continual exposure shows the audience the limitations as well as the breadth of range of its actors. It offers New York some rather remarkable theatre one also canít get elsewhere. I donít know of too many theaters anywhere on this planet that in one season presents a vintage comedy of Gozzi and as well Lessingís Nathan The Wise. The Pearl always gives one copious notes, enthusiastic if not often notably well written, often the directorsí personal views of the play.
There are as usual many good things to say about this typical Pearl production. The excerpts from sonatas by Mozart played on a fortepiano was beautifully authentic and to the point. The elegant but nearly bare stage gave the action an exquisite fluidity almost cardinal absent in Sheridanís original probably klutzy realistic production. It has Dan Dailey and Carole Schultz in big roles; one canít do better than these two at anything. They are delicious to watch, good as anybody in England.
Itís one of the intriguing paradoxes of this sort of comedy from Etherege through Sheridan and Wilde that all of them had been written by very young men. Most of them finished their careers as playwrights, lived other lives by the time thee were middle aged. We are as a result adorned with amusements by these perished incandescent spirits when their hopes and high ambition had all been in front of them. Itís not how we think of the dead; itís how they thought of themselves.
The Pearl Theatre, one of many spas of its kind in New York, operates in a way defined by the laws of the state as a refuges from commerce. It provides a real and signal service to the community bringing play after play of genius to a public that could not see them anywhere else. The Pearl is chartered to do what it certainly does industriously; it has a mission statement it will give one if one asks to define its self-designed mandate. It also has a steady parade of customers that are usually happy with its generally respectable if rarely brilliant productions offered at cheap prices in a spirit very sensitive to the economic constraints of students and the aged. One couldnít meet a more amiable and available staff of mounting such productions than the Pearl people. The staff is in the lobby, anxious to talk to you, ready to discuss the plays with the audience in the intermission as well as before and after the show.
Often they are fairly knowledgeable; they always have personal and independent views. The wide but shallow stage of the Pearl and its chamber size ensures that everybody has a good seat.
The Pearl Theatreís stage is open, there is no curtain; thus it is very much amenable to the sort of productions one might have seen of play centuries ago; the Romans in the time of Seneca invented theatre using curtains. Iíve seen some excellent productions at the Pearl of plays that are within the sometimes limited compass of their less well crafted actors and directors; the best staged one Iíve take in was Daisy Mayne of George Kelly, a fine realistic drama that didnít ask of actors more than the general skills the less brilliant of the Pearl regulars can offer.
Itís not worth talking much about the few disasters Iíve seen at the Pearl except to say: they nearly always seem to come from a central misunderstanding of the play by the director. They also have either the incapacity or disinclination of the actors to take up parts that call not for mere competence as does Daisy Mayne but brilliance or bust.
Yet even when the Pearl fails or is substantially short of what was possible in the mounting of a given play one always feels the idealism of their staff, the dedication of their calling to theatre, and the generosity of their effort. One is even grateful for the charity of their patrons nurturing a New York economic machine for such theatre that works at bottom n the largesse of donors, not the ruthless caprices of pure commerce.

2

Auden once said of Homerís lordly pagans nobles that their mortality and simultaneous definition of themselves as near gods evoked a peculiar and intense melancholy. Sheridan has this sorrowful quality in his lines, not in this amiable production.
A few years ago The Pearlís excellent version of The Country Wife had just that wonderful tension and irritability in Jack Horner and his crew that comes from the comic tragedy and melancholy of mortals living on feudal lucre trying to be near deities; itís not as if sometimes the Pearl isnít up to doing justice to any of these old plays. This version of The Rivals, good as it was for what it was, wasnít one of those brilliant times. The chilling spectre of tragedy and death in this comedy wasnít there.
The Rivals is one of two famous plays of Sheridan, the other The School For Scandal. There is something chilly and narrow about The School For Scandal which makes it less amiable to use as Sheridanís other famous success. Since we exist in his future we can place Sheridan in English theatre history better than he could have himself. Part of a moment in English theatre that including Farquar and Oliver Goldsmith thriving roughly between 1780 and 1800 that invented no new craft or vision yet used the traditional comedy of humours of Ben Jonson and Restoration Drama to take up new themes, Sheridan was a precursor of Wilde in his social satire. Restoration playwrights before him arenít even mildly revolutionary.
For what it aims to be this Pearl production is excellent. Robert Neff Williams, the director, sagaciously stays out of the way of an excellent play, unobtrusively moving his character around with a fluid mastery of blocking and its inner rhythms. The Pearl always has excellent costumes; these fine ones were done by Frank Champa.
Theatre when it is not monologue is always art by a committee. Some of the actors at the Pearl are better than others; the best of them like Dan Dailey and Carole Schultz are brilliant. Dominick Cuskern offers his intense if not overly gaudy talents and subtle range of characterizations reliably if with less panache. Robert Hock as Sir Anthony Absolute in this play has a great part; he does it roundly with a special idiosyncratic feel familiar to his fans among the Pearl regulars.
Unfortunately neither Sean McNall, not a Pearl regular, as the leading man, Jack Absolute, nor Rachel Botchan, a regular, as Lydia Languish, though both are fine physical actors, seem to have a clue of how to find their character. Jack Absolute is, as the lines say, ultimately impudent behind a domino of modesty. He needs to be played with the sinister and charming swagger of a Machaivel or an Iago, perhaps a libertine like Jack Horner in The Country Wife, a predatory and mendacious protagonist upon whom Sheridan had probably based this snarling and angry if apparently mild and benign character.
McNallís sweet performance is redolent only of an innocent tenor in a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy. Luckily he is a handsome man and looks well set up if jejune. Itís hardly Sheridanís point to say that we can sometimes forgive even our assassins when they are good looking.
It does skew the focus of the play when the protagonist isnít played as he was meant to be. The Rivals like Restoration Comedy and the ever earlier Jonsonian comedy of humours looks back upon such rakes as much as do Wildeís and Cowardís satire at a later time. If their protagonists are nearly heros, they are never sympathetic. The medieval spirit of marcels judgment lurks not too far beneath such Marlovian swagger.
The Rivals, a wicked tragedy larded with harsh wit, a blithe anatomy of charmingly wicked mendacity, vanity and lunacy, belongs in a grimoire of moral emptiness; yet it is wisely offered in a candid guise as a comedy. Lydia Languish in this play is supposed to be a sort of half lunatic made daft by inordinate reading of books, notably Smollet. I donít think by the way that Sheridan had ever read Smollet; itís a poor choice for a sleazy novelist who corrupts virgins and his other his fancied prey with excessive sentiment.
Lydia is partial to every gushing fancy of the time including the virtues of living on love in severe poverty. Unless she is seen as a fool as Jack Absolute is a confirmed rake The Rivals loses its inner melancholy.
Sadly the Pearl does such plays of like The Rivals again and again beyond their commendable verve and brio with a distilled American accent with none of the sense of cyclical ritual in life, no shard of memory, mortality, presentiments of death or an irritable pique at the constraints of class at the top and bottom of England. About half of the meat of this play surfacing at the Pearl has most sorrily disappeared after crossing the Atlantic. To the modern ear an American accent means to us a cultural overlay lacking a sense of the past, a feckless hope in opportunity, none of the uncharitable steely design of age and ugliness that Sheridan put into his raffish fops and ladies of gentility.
The authority that parents wield over children is out of joint when these characters talk like either Americans or refugees from an imaginary capital of Canada. The Rivals is balanced in its good humor with a saurian scorn of folly that when absent makes this social satire into a drama much more superficial than it is.
There are many jokes by Sheridan, living as he did at a watershed time at the bottom for populist and republican values, about duels, honor, the genteel code, even the hunting after inherited fortune in a society that doesnít often allow its poor to become affluent unless they are successful pirates. There is even an implied trashing of the genteel in the lie that Jack Absolute is in Bath ďrecruitingĒ. The sally reminds us that patricians are hardly likely to risk their lives at anything much less a chance to die for the congenial empire that civilly supports their leisure.
As in The Sun Also Rises, the only one in this play apt to do honor old values is an ethnically exotic, the Irish knight, Sir Lucius OíTrigger He is probably a parvenu who takes up chivalric values with zeal precisely because he is like Sheridan himself racially not one of the English coterie who are supposedly born to such supposedly high notions.
We lack in this American version the lack of a sense in the young in the play that they are likely in a short time to become as grotesque and carnally useless as the old. Like everybody else they will then perish altogether. Itís a loss in or out of a play among mortals to give up this autumnal strain
I could be wrong, I havenít read The Rivals in 44 years; b but my memory tells me that the Pearl with an intent to streamline the action dropped a few important short establishing scenes in this very long play. The Rivals is sort of like Superman or Charleyís Aunt in its use of a double identity; in this version we never see the Ensign Beverley that Jack Absolute has invented as a guised alter ego nor do we see in the action that the romantic Lydia Languish loves him precisely because he appears to be a poor ensign, not a noble captain. When she discovers he is a patrician, the joke is lost.
Sheridanís point is that in such an upside down set of values the nobles have to pretend to be impoverished louts to seduce women; itís no longer a world in which poor but clever opportunists take up the vertical ascents of mountebanks. Othello has to pretend to be Iago in such a realm. Since Sheridan himself was one of those on such an upward class career move of a more classic type, the joke meant a great deal to him.
We also never see two of the suitors of Lydia Languish, Bob Acres and Lucius OíTrigger, in the company of their respective amarants. These cuts make somebody must have made along the way the complex structure of The Rivals considerably less persuasive.
The Rivals, written by a young man, looks at the sentimental banalities of the late 18th century from the point of view of an older time. The notion of humours really goes back to the Hellenistic Characters of Theophrastus; as Ben Jonson showed itís effective on the stage as a way of presenting human life as both focused on a singular amusing madness from type to type and as an implied epic myriad kaleidoscope of folly.
Jack Absolute represents the reality behind Lydiaís suicidal but fashionable illusion; Jack is not a nice guy but a fortune hunting rake who, as he says in his Iago-like soliloquies, hides impudence behind modesty, sociopathy behind a show of filial piety.
Mrs. Malaprop misuses language in a farcical way; as played brilliantly and complexly by Carole Schultz, she also is tainted by her improper sexual hungers, fury and overweening vanity of the half educated. A friend of Absoluteís, Faulkland, finds some detail wrong with every nuance of his loverís happiness or lack of it. He is a kind of special fool who manufactures torment and sorrow out of nothing.
Meanwhile Jack Absoluteís father is always threatening his son with the rigors and punishments of his fabulous ire; yet he was as much a rake as his son in his own long and hardly forgotten puerility.
Unlike American playwrights Sheridan can use the history of English theatre as his audience knew it a shorthand for his own intrepid denatures from the old theatre rites. Terre is always in this tradition a set of rakes who are looking to live lives of erodible leisure on inherited feudal fortunes. There are young women who hope to be loved yet have good reason to be cautious about their amarants, older women who are grotesquely coquettish and pious when they are at heart desperate and promiscuous on their way to death. The idea that age might bring measure and virtue to the soul is unthinkable in this world.
Since most Restoration playwrights as well as Sheridan were young men when they wrote their masterpieces they didnít think much of the inner ripeness of mature lovers. Sheridan didnít change any of the banally puerile attitudes common to youth in his plays, In their predictability this sort of theatre gave its audience some comfort in the apparently banal.

3

Wean we get the best theatre, whether by Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Moliere or Noel Coward, the playwright is often the director, the leading actor, has artistic control over a very personal and idiosyncratic offering. The last such theatre weíve head in New York was done by the late Charles Ludlam.
Inherently museum theatre cannot offer us this experience. The playwright is dead; he does not share the woes of the community and cannot speak with the voice of the living. Yet the Pearl has three or four great stage actors, the best of whom is probably Dan Dailey.
Dailey did a great and very different comical and existential Richard The Third that was brilliant here last year. Dailey has every skill one can have in the theatre including the ability to listen with presence, vary his vocal rhythms with virtuosity; he has a range of physical movement that is really caviar. One could enjoy Dan Dailey reading the telephone book. Dailey is also something of a theatre scholar; he has taught at the Pearl how to act in Shakespeare plays.
Joanne Camp has both a unique charm and fine range; she is always an exquisite pleasure as both a talent and a mistress of dramatic craft. Carole Schultz is a different but very strong stage presence with tremendous range whether she is doing Gaslight or the Orestia. I wouldnít mind hearing either of these actresses reading the telephone book either.
One should go to the Pearl not merely because it does platys one has always hoped to see but for the skills of its best actors. Itís like watching a great pianist play a chestnut. Dailey. Schultz, and Camp are caviar.
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