Who wrote this play?" a woman brayed as the audience filed out of the Grandel Theatre after the opening-night performance of The Rivals. "Oscar Wilde?"
"Sheridan," her companion replied.
The woman loudly challenged in ignorant suspicion: "Sheridan? Who's he?"
Funny she should ask, because as it so happens, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was a fascinating guy. Although he was born in Dublin in 1751, Sheridan lived most of his youth in London and in the nearby resort town of Bath. At age 21 he fell in love and eloped to France. The bride's father was furious. A duel ensued, and Sheridan was seriously wounded. After he recovered and became a respectable lawyer, the couple was allowed to wed.
But the law bored Sheridan, so on a lark he tried his pen at playwriting. The Rivals, his first effort, became a smash hit. Set in his hometown of Bath, it is buoyant with would-be elopements and near-duels, all drawn from Sheridan's own life, though dissembled from high drama to comedy of manners.
Not too mannered, however. While watching The Rivals, it's worth remembering that this is a young man's play (Sheridan was only 24 when The Rivals premiered in 1775), and it exudes the vigor and brash irreverence of youth. Today, 226 years later, The Rivals is still brash and vigorous, and remarkably accessible, though you might not think so to hear the plot.
Lydia Languish (Wendy Bagger, who every so often contorts her body into the most fetching and character-revealing poses) languishes for the love of a poor man, someone with whom she can elope and escape the trappings of an ornate wedding. Before the play begins, Lydia has fallen in love with Capt. Jack Absolute (Jason Cannon). But Jack is absolutely the wrong man for Lydia, because he is about to inherit big bucks. So Jack has wooed Lydia under a false name. Meanwhile, Lydia's guardian, that "weather-beaten she-dragon" Mrs. Malaprop (Donna M. Parrone), plans to marry her ward to one of Jack's rivals.
You get the drift. The evening's intricate plots and subplots runneth over with misunderstandings, mistaken identities and harmless betrayals of trust, and it all makes for consistently amusing fun, especially so when the draconic Mrs. Malaprop dominates the proceedings. "Quite the cream of the dictionary," she is one of the most enduring characters in all English comedy, a vocabulary-mangling descendant of Shakespeare's Dogberry and the antecedent to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell. Although Mrs. M is best known for her relentless verbal blunders, she is equally droll when showing off her stupidity. Like, for instance, when she cannot recall in which of Shakespeare's plays Hamlet appears.
The cast is uniformly good; the direction by Ted Gregory, good enough, though it's always a puzzlement as to why directors cannot trust classic plays to stand on their own classic merits. The tacked-on show that opens the evening is merely dumb. And why has a Hurdygurdy Man been added to the production, haplessly stuck onstage for the duration with nothing to do? Whatever contribution he's supposed to be making, he doesn't. I would assume that the director also must bear ultimate responsibility for the bewildering decision to outfit the cast in costumes that appear to have been borrowed from this summer's Muny Opera productions of Brigadoon, My Fair Lady -- and did the Muny do The Chocolate Soldier this summer?
On the other hand, the cleanliness of Patrick Huber's simple set, which, with a few strokes of a brush, evokes the celebrated Crescent in Bath without intruding on the actors, is much to be admired.
Most to be admired, of course, is the author himself, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a then-first-time playwright who long, long ago inexplicably succeeded in writing a stylish comedy that has never, ever gone out of style.