This day my oaths for drinking of wine and going to plays are out, and so I do resolve to take a liberty to-day and then fall to them again. - Samuel Pepys, Diary, Monday, 29 September, 1662
Well, as for drinking of wine - I did not partake - but my two-week theater hiatus ended with a bang last night. A fizzy, delightful sort of a bang...a champagne-cork-in-the-air sort of a bang...a rocket sending out multicolored, starry streamers sort of a bang. In short - I and my theatre-partner-in-crime (who has unmasked himself to all of you as John Wirenius, Department of Collective Bargaining lawyer by day, Anthony Trollope hommage novelist and Theatre Geek by night), hied ourselves down to waaaaaayyy West 42nd St. (Eleventh Avenue - practically in the river) to see the Pearl Theatre Company's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's immortal mistaken-identity comedy The Rivals.
Now, I know this will seem all but unbelievable for a pair of anachronistic wonks like John and myself, but the fact is, neither of us had ever actually read the play, nor seen it performed. All we had to go on when we procured our tickets was that I had seen and relished Sheridan's The School for Scandal at Lincoln Center some years ago, and that we both know who Mrs. Malaprop is, because she has achieved her own sort of brand name recognition status, independent of the play in its entirety, just as one may know that "Soylent Green is made out of people!" without sitting through an entire movie watching Charlton Heston laboriously attempting to alter his facial expression to indicate change of emotion.
Not that I mean to compare Soylent Green with The Rivals, for it would be hard to find two more disparate works. The screenplay of Hollywood's futuristic cult fave may be characterized by many adjectives; witty is not one of them. As for the acting...again, I must give the palm to The Rivals. Last night's performance was graced with a delectable cast, who effortlessly batted their frothy lines back and forth like a supernumary badminton team keeping a be-gemmed aigrette birdie constantly in play - with a few stand-out performances that demand special mention.
Everybody's favorite, Mrs. Malaprop, played by Carol Schultz, did not disappoint, as the actress delivered her loopy lines with great aplomb, denouncing her recalcitrant niece as "an allegory on the banks of the Nile" and deploring those who would cast aspersions on her "nice derangement of epitaphs." (Now that I've said that, I wonder what gloriously daffy misapplications Mrs. M. could have made of such words as recalcitrant and aspersions? I daresay Mrs. Malaprop's physician, detecting signs of oncoming osteoporosis, might have warned her she was in danger of becoming recalcitrant and prescribed a course of Lydia Pinkham's Pills. Cleopatra, that other well-known allegory on the banks of the Nile, undoubtedly perished of aspersions.) Ms. Schultz's giddy simper, as she blushingly confessed to Sir Lucius O'Trigger that he was mistaken in assuming that the billet-doux written by her own fair hand had issued from that of her seventeen-year-old niece, Lydia, but that she, Mrs. Malaprop, was ready to set the matter right, and be his, all his, prodded me into one of those unladylike guffaws that makes my friends do all they can to avoid siting next to me at the theater.
The seventeen-year-old niece, endowed by her creator with the liltingly luscious appellation of Lydia Languish, was not unfittingly portrayed by the enchanting Jessica Love, who was all fire, wit and mischief, as well as being one of the prettiest women I have seen gracing a stage in this many a season. Considerably taller than her stage cousin and foil Julia Melville (an excellent Rachel Botchan), Ms. Love gave the role an intensity that belied the character's surname;the stage fairly crackled with energy whenever she flounced into sight. Ms. Love is also the fortunate possessor of the most expressive pair of eyebrows it has been my good fortune to observe since Marian Seldes last trod the boards.
Ms. Botchan, for her part, gives Julia a touching earnest tenderness as she tries to soothe and comprehend her beloved Falkland, a man who insists on making himself miserable whenever there is the slightest chance that he might actually be happy. Her honest indignation when Falkland finally goes too far in his imbecilic tests of her fidelity, her quiet renunciation of him and all his works, is more powerful in its sorrowful acknowledgment that she cannot give her own happiness into the keeping of a man who insists upon throwing his happiness away than a stormy upbraiding could ever have been.
Sir Lucius O'Trigger, one of the aspirants (there goes that Assassin of the Allegory again!) to the hand of Miss Languish, is written as that stock character, the Comic Irishman. On the page, it is obvious that he could never succeed with the lovely Lydia because, strictly as written, he is a pugnacious rube. On the stage, however, as portrayed by Sean McNall, it becomes quite clear why Mrs. Malaprop is hankering after Sir Lucius, for Mr. McNall invests him with a raffish charm and a splendid physical vigor and grace that had me sitting up a little straighter, running a pointed tongue across my lips, and muttering to my companion, "Don't you think he's rather...feline? I could see him playing Puss-in-Boots. Like, Antonio Banderas Puss-in-Boots." Dear John gravely inclined his head and conceded the point. At this stage, just as the discussion was getting interesting, an ill-bred theatergoer behind up poked us with her toe and hissed, "Do you mind?"
But the jewel in the crown was Dan Daily in the role of Sir Anthony Absolute, father of Jack Absolute, Miss Lydia's preferred suitor (although she doesn't know it, since she is under the impression she is about to hoodwink all her friends and elope with Ensign Beverly... which is what Jack has been calling himself, knowing that the romantic Miss Languish suffers from a whopping case of reverse snobbery and wouldn't have him if she knew he had money and a title.)
Sir Anthony, growing redder and redder in the face as he thunders out his dictum that Jack shall marry at his behest, even if the proposed bride "shall be as ugly as I choose : she shall have a hump on each shoulder; she shall be as crooked as the crescent ; her one eye shall roll like the bull's in Cox's Museum; she shall have a skin like a mummy, and the beard of a goat; she shall be all this, sirrah ! yet I will make you ogle her all day, and sit up all night to write sonnets on her beauty!"
Sir Anthony, apoplectic at being defied, thundering at his offspring, "You know I am compliance itself when I am not thwarted ; no one more easily led when I have my own way; but don't put me in a frenzy!"
Or - perhaps my favorite moment - Sir Anthony, confessing at last, upon Jack's tendering unexpected obedience to the wishes of his sire, that the lady he has in mind as a daughter-in-law is not, after all, a creature out of Cox's Museum, but rather a delectable Miss of seventeen -
"Nay, but Jack, such eyes ! such eyes ! so innocently wild ! so bashfully irresolute ! not a glance but speaks and kindles some thought of love ! Then, Jack, her cheeks ! her cheeks, Jack ! so deeply blushing at the insinuations of her tell-tale eyes ! Then, Jack, her lips ! O Jack, lips smiling at their own discretion ; and if not smiling, more sweetly pouting ; more lovely in sullenness!"
Who else could this be, but the mistress of Jack's heart - Lydia Languish, herself? Jack, of course, is fully aware of this already - hence, his capitulation. But Papa Absolute doesn't know that he knows, and Mr. Daily's rhapsodies as he suits his actions to his words... the pretty pursing of his lips as he emulates Lydia's pouts... the twiddling of a forefinger in the air as he admonishes his offspring that the connubial delights awaiting him are too good for him by half, and if he can't appreciate them, perhaps they'd be better enjoyed by Absolute père, are indescribable in their comic perfection.
As John and I agreed, after the curtain calls were done, and we had leapt to our feet as a two-person standing ovation (the rest of the audience was shy about giving excellence its due, but we were not),
"Now, that was acting!"