The Rivals

Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Sts., through April 13, 574-3550, ext. 4.

The production is classy, stylish, breezy and finely tuned. Why, then, does it feel a bit long and a bit dull?
I don't know whether Bath was as fashionable a social scene in the 1920s as it was in the 1770s, when Richard Brinsley Sheridan chose the spa as the setting for his comedy The Rivals. But director Mark Clements' transposition of the play to the Jazz Age (at the Walnut, in an Anglo-American co-production that's already played in Clements' own theater in Derby) works marvelously.

The 20-foot stack of luggage at the very beginning of the play, and the army of uniformed hotel clerks and bellhops and gentlemen's gentlemen dismantling it, clearly signal that we're in a town filled with fashionable people on holiday, with plenty of luggage, plenty of money and plenty of time on their hands to dine with one another, get the latest trashy romance novel from the lending library, duel with one another, and court and marry one another. The new setting sits well in the old script, just as the exquisitely dressed characters, in their bobbed hair, flapper dresses, plus-fours and argyle socks, seem perfectly at home in the limestone halls of neo-classical Bath. The 18th-century gentlemen in their regimental scarlet coats peering down from their portraits on the wall don't seem to mind it at all when a scratchy Charleston whines out of the funnel of a gramophone beneath them.

The resulting production (beautifully designed by Robert Jones) is classy, stylish, breezy and finely tuned.

Why, then, does it feel a bit long and a bit dull?

Not, I hope, because of Sheridan's delicious play, with its beautifully wrought comic situations and ontologically complex premise: young Captain Jack Absolute (Ian Shaw) discovers that he's to be forcibly married to the woman he's already been courting under an assumed name -- that he is, in effect, his own rival. The Rivals is filled with such emotionally profound situations lurking beneath its sparkling surface; and Clements' production goes far in capturing them. Just when the complications of the plot start to get resolved, the real emotional issues surface and threaten to become intractable: when Julia (Melissa Chalsma) finds that her emotionally masochistic fianc Faulkland (Timothy Watson) has played one game too many with her ("How you have trifled with my sincerity,'' she rightly complains); and when the romance-besotted Lydia Languish (Grace Gonglewski) finds, to her chagrin, that Jack is playing one game too few ("So, there will be no elopement after all,'' she laments, heartbroken).

So why does it all wear thin? Perhaps because the play, and the production, throw all this out when they tie up the many strands of the plot too neatly at the end. And, as the play grinds to a close, the tiresome comic characters take over. The rustic would-be gentleman Bob Acres and the pugnacious Irish aristocrat Sir Lucius O'Trigger are well-characterized by their actors (Paul Rider and Allyn Burrows), but these characterizations are ultimately only inches deep. And (I admit that this may be my own failing -- maybe I've been a teacher for too long) I have always found Mrs. Malaprop, the play's menopausal, oversexed, linguistically challenged comic butt (played here by international headliner Millicent Martin) to be more embarrassing than funny.

Still, there are some fine comic performances by Ian Lindsay as Sir Anthony Absolute, Tyler Butterworth as Jack's butler Fag and Melanye Finister as Lydia's servant Lucy. (Why is it that the only person of color in the production plays a supercilious but sassy parlor maid? If that's what comes from Anglo-American co-productions, then I'll pass, thank you.) And there's always the pleasure of seeing Lydia Languish light a pink cigarette in a long black cigarette holder, of watching Bob Acres try to dance the Charleston, and of admiring the pink and black feathers on Mrs. Malaprop's black turban.

-- Cary M. Mazer