What with Freedomland and Love and Anger, The Little Foxes and The Silent Woman, I keep walking out of Washington theaters thinking that Nancy Robinette has at last played the role she was born to play. As of last Sunday, I’ve officially retired the observation: Robinette has met Mrs. Malaprop, and the language will never be quite the same.

If I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have had to keep repeating myself: It should have been perfectly obvious that the phrase-mangling dowager at the center of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals would be the ultimate vehicle for Robinette’s particular brand of comedy. I’m damned if I can think of anyone who’s as good at being at once ridiculous and vulnerable, and if The Rivals’ romp through the territories of misunderstanding and mistaken identity is to be more than ordinarily entertaining, Mrs. M had better be both. Keith Baxter’s boisterous staging for the Shakespeare Theatre may not make much of the character’s human side—it’s rather too broad and brisk an exercise to dwell on such things—but Robinette sketches it in for us nonetheless. She is, as the learned lady herself might have observed, the very pineapple of perception.

Sheridan’s agile word games—you’re constantly a step behind Mrs. M., puzzling out what word she meant to use, and it always makes perfect sense when it clicks—are just one indicator that the question of women’s education is the point of his satire—one of the points, anyway. In 18th-century England, even well-heeled ladies couldn’t count on learning much beyond huswifery and music; the schoolroom was essentially a men-only space, and the result was too often a vocabulary nearly as muddled as Mrs. Malaprop’s. Or a worldview nearly as limited as that of her ward, the ridiculously romantic Lydia Languish: Sheridan’s comic exaggerations notwithstanding, there were plenty of young Georgian-era women whose ideas about life and love were drawn mostly from the pages of the period’s purplish novels. Make no mistake: The Rivals’ complications, hilarious as they can be, result from a condition Sheridan was mourning as much as mocking.

They are delicious complications, though, and Baxter’s production downplays the lesson to emphasize the laughs: The exquisite Lydia (and Tessa Auberjonois is, indeed) has been carrying on a resort-town romance with the wealthy Capt. Jack Absolute (Hank Stratton, all toothy action-hero grin), but only because she thinks he’s a penniless ensign whose attentions will infuriate her status-conscious guardian, the aforementioned Mrs. Malaprop. That the old dragon’s approval is required if Lydia isn’t to lose her substantial inheritance is all the more ideal; elopement and romantic poverty are precisely what that stack of bodice-rippers in Lydia’s drawing room have taught her to aspire to.

Meanwhile, Jack’s gouty old father (David Sabin) and Mrs. Malaprop have been inspired to broker a marriage between his heir and her ward—not knowing, of course, that Jack’s already been courting the young lady under another name and rank. Lydia, hearing that she’ll soon have an aristocratic new suitor, swears to despise him; Jack, confronted with the prospect of an arranged marriage, balks the balk of all headstrong young military men. On the sidelines, Jack’s best friend, Faulkland (comically fretful Romain Frugé), keeps tripping over his own doubts about how much Lydia’s cousin Julia (Noel True) really loves him, finally testing her beyond her substantial patience. And off in the margins, a pair of bumpkinish country gentlemen (Floyd King and Tom Story) nurse first a brace of romances and then a brace of grievances; turns out they’re as mixed up about both as everyone else is about everything that’s gone before. It all ends, hilariously enough, in recriminations, tears, and a duel—and, inevitably, a pair of pairings-off.

Baxter’s staging looks terrific, with a smart, flexible Simon Higlett set that’s all Georgian elegance and reserve. The same adjectives apply to Robert Perdziola’s costumes (except, of course, for the rustics’ getups and the striped yellow circus tent of a gown he’s given Mrs. Malaprop) and to the warm but basically baroque score, courtesy of sound designer Martin Desjardins; the sum of it all is a backdrop of substantial graciousness for the absurdities to play out against.

The show is best when its personages, too, exhibit at least a little grace. David Sabin’s magnificently irascible Sir Anthony Absolute is so delightful precisely for the paternal warmth—and adolescent glee—that he can’t quite keep concealed, and True’s lovely Julia is memorable not for the early banter she shares with Lydia but for the genuine pain she shows later on. And Tom Story’s Bob Acres is so grating not for his lack of polish, but for his lack of variation; it’s a performance all on one note, played loudly from start to finish.

Happily, there’s Robinette to come storming on every 10 minutes or so, spouting confident absurdities—insisting with tremendous aplomb that Lydia “illiterate” her young ensign from her memory, or complimenting Sir Anthony as “an absolute misanthropy.” Sheridan even makes her the center of attention when others are at center stage: A modest declaration of love, in a letter to Sir Lucius, is followed hard by the observation that “female punctuation forbids me to say more.” The line gets as big a laugh, too, as if the lady herself had been there to deliver it—and lucky for all of us, her female punctuation doesn’t keep her quiet for long.

Jeremy Davidson isn’t quiet for more than a few seconds at a time in Nijinsky’s Last Dance, the one-man show that’s getting a much-touted revival at the Kennedy Center this month. He talks his way through the fabled dancer’s painful childhood, unorthodox sexual awakening, troubled relationships, and monumental career crises, all by way of helping us understand the madness that finally claimed him. Helping us understand, anyway, what playwright Norman Allen and director Joe Calarco make of how it all might have fit together—how genius and sensitivity and instability might be one fabric for an artist of Nijinsky’s caliber.

The show is beautifully written—some will grumble about the endless assertions of “I am Nijinsky; I am Nijinsky!” but the man’s sense of self was his sense of his art, and to be locked away without the means to invoke the latter, surely, is to be reduced to invoking the former. It’s stylishly performed: Davidson creates a distinctive vocal sound and a specific vocabulary of movement for each of the characters he inhabits, and he’s keenly aware of

the very specific rhythms on which Allen’s script is built. And with Calarco, he’s managed to find ways to hint at the physical grace and power of a performer no one in the audience has ever seen in motion, a performer whose legend suggests that his gifts couldn’t possibly be captured by an actor, however extraordinary. Mimicry wouldn’t have been of any use; what’s been accomplished here, as in the original Signature Theatre production, is a kind of distillation, and it’s often as powerful as the word suggests.

The original, it must be said, didn’t strike me as being quite so intrusively produced; there’s a good deal more sound and lighting fury than seems necessary this time around. And I don’t recall Davidson’s earlier portrayal of Nijinsky himself as being quite so petulant; the voice has more of a whining edge than memory suggests, and the character seems a degree or two less sympathetic.

And yet the whole of the evening is undeniably affecting. When the last words had been spoken on the evening I saw it, the hall sat utterly silent until Davidson broke character to take his bow. Carp about one element or another if you like, but that doesn’t happen randomly in the theater—and it doesn’t happen often enough. CP

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