Funny, it's not enough

Review: The Olney's production of `The Rivals' isn't deranged enough to reveal the absurdity of this show.

April 26, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

No one would expect Anthony Hopkins to excel in a Marx Brothers movie, and the notion of Groucho portraying Hannibal Lecter boggles the imagination.

Yet director Halo Wines made an equivalent choice when she assigned actors who have distinguished themselves in dramatic roles to play comic characters in the Olney Theatre Center's current production of `The Rivals." Beyond any doubt, these actors are skilled - but their skills are different from the ones required by this play.

So while this production seems to have all the elements for success - lines that are laugh-out-loud funny, superb craftsmen on the stage and behind it, even a receptive audience - it mysteriously never lifts off. This show should be as hard and bright as glass, but it's missing a manic gleam. The characters need to at least hint at an obsessiveness so extreme that they become absurd.

"The Rivals" was written in 1775, and to modern eyes, it seems to have all the plot devices of conventional Restoration comedy - a comely young woman pursued by an older suitor, lovers thwarted by disapproving guardians, a planned elopement and a duel - but it's drawn to a remarkable degree from the life of its 23-year-old playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Sheridan was in love with the most sought-after singer of the era, the beauteous Elizabeth Linley, but the match was opposed by both sets of parents. When Elizabeth found herself affianced against her wishes to an older man, she and Richard secretly left the country and married abroad. When they returned, Sheridan fought two duels with the jilted suitor and was gravely injured.

No doubt, his ready access to the situation's heightened emotions and his unique position to observe human beings maneuvering under stress helped bring freshness and vitality to what even then were stale dramatic forms.

Two of Sheridan's most inspired creations are Mrs. Malaprop, who masterfully mangles language, and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, who doggedly adheres to an outmoded code of honor. But this production fails to exploit their full comic potential.

Mrs. Malaprop isn't funny merely because she makes mistakes in grammar. She's funny - and ultimately a little touching - because she undermines her own efforts to establish her intellectual credentials. She scrambles up a mountain of syntax, leaping from teetering allegory to slippery simile, desperately clawing at handfuls of sentence fragments that crumble into bits the moment she touches them. ("He is the very pineapple of politeness.") She somehow avoids crashing to the ground, but she never manages to gain a secure foothold.

Ida Elrod Eustis has a stage presence, intelligence and natural authority that would be just right for Greek tragedy, in which she has performed. Instead of giving Mrs. Malaprop an exaggerated form of these attributes, she tries to squelch them, with intermittent success; her great trumpet of a voice is at odds with the baby steps with which she minces across the stage.

Likewise, Paul Morella has excelled in the complex characterizations called for in such dramas as "Beckett" and "Angels in America," for which he won a 2000 Helen Hayes Award for best supporting actor.

But in "The Rivals," he never quite captures that embodiment of testosterone, Lucius O'Trigger. That character should be as hot-tempered as a bull, and as easily misdirected by a skimpy scrap of cloth. He should do everything but snort and paw the ground. Morella is vigorous and forceful, and the famous speech he delivers on the etiquette of the duel is one of the comic highlights of the evening, but he never takes the necessary extra step into deranged.

It's probably not a coincidence that some of the most effective performances are the ones written to be foils for the comic madness. In particular, MaryBeth Wise's grounded portrayal of Julia, the heroine's sensible best friend, provides a welcome reality check; during one unexpectedly sober moment, the audience is reminded that the characters are real people, with real feelings at stake.

One of Sheridan's chief innovations is the now-commonplace technique of letting the audience in on the joke. Sheridan figured out how to orchestrate the dramatic action so that viewers know what's going on while the characters are still in the process of uncovering one another's secrets - which lets us anticipate the dilemmas they will find themselves in. This device is reinforced by James Krozer's clever set, featuring a rotating wheel and sheer, see-through walls. But, as Mrs. Malaprop might say, in this case seeing is deceiving.

`The Rivals'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. most Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. most Sundays. Through May 20.

Tickets: $15-$34

Call: 301-924-3400

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