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It has taken decades for D.C.’s directing pool to get deep enough to swim in, and one of the more intriguing aspects of theatergoing lately has been watching troupes decide whether to take plunges or just wade in the artistic shallows.
Time was, every local theater had its own shortlist of stagers, andthough different strokes suited different folkswhen, say, Round House Theatre announced a Glass Menagerie, you knew what brand of delicacy and moonlight you were likely to be submerged in. With some 80 local companies and dozens of itinerant directors floating freely, that’s less often the case now.
Who’d have guessed, for instance, that Richard Romagnoli’s exhilarating The Importance of Being Earnest for Olney Theatre would remake that familiar classic in its author’s image by turning Algernon into Oscar Wilde? Or that Joe Calarco could create Nijinsky’s Last Dance seemingly on the body of its nondancing lead? Conceptualized Shakespeare is getting so common locally that to be really radical, a classical troupe would have to put its actors in doublets and hose. And, although no patron could have been overly thrilled when Arena announced that it would present the sixth area mounting in seven years of A Streetcar Named Desire, for sheer audacity, you’d be hard-pressed to top the earthquake-from-Kosovo variation that János Szasz dreamed up.
Which is not to suggest that the only bold way to approach a play is to deconstruct it; witness the ravishing Passion that Eric Schaeffer conjured at Signature a few seasons ago and Joy Zinoman’s clear-eyed rendering of The Invention of Love at Studio. In each, a complex, on-the-face-of-it-difficult script emerges streamlined and emotionally enhanced by directorial emphasis on clarity and character. I note the alternative approaches only because they’ve become almost standard of late.
By that yardstick, Olney Theatre’s amiable mounting of The Rivals qualifies as a throwback of sorts. Itrather proudly, reallyhasn’t an idea in its pretty little head, save perhaps a desire to amuse the folks out front. That Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners was once regarded as class-conscious social satire is barely suggested. At Olney, it’s just bright and pleasant, content to get some laughs and pass the time.
The plot centers on a couple of idiots who can’t get out of their own romantic way as they struggle to woo women who already love them. Aristocrat Jack Absolute (Christopher Michael Bauer) invents an impoverished alter ego to romance his egalitarian beloved (Peggy Yates), then inadvertently becomes his own competition. And his jealous buddy Faulkland (Mark Gerald Douglas) is so sure that his sweet Lucy (Kathleen Coons) will eventually leave him that he very nearly talks her into doing so.
Cooler heads prevail, of course, but not before subsidiary characters have challenged the leads to duels and everyone has risked everything from disinheritance to discombobulation. Nor before Mrs. Malaprop, that noted proponent of what today might be called Bushonics (“I reprehend your meaning”), has brought her unique brand of syntax to the task of clarifying things.
The Rivals may not be Sheridan’s best workThe School for Scandal tops it handily for wit and bilebut in Mrs. Malaprop it certainly has the playwright’s best character, and veteran actress Halo Wines was pretty much born to play her. Unfortunately for Olney’s production, Wines is directing rather than starring, and she has encouraged Ida Elrod Eustis to turn the “old weather-beaten she-dragon” into a powder puff, with silly little walks and middle-class airs. The result is a Mrs. Malaprop who’s more a suburban hausfrau than a socially insulated intellectual pretender with delusions of adequacy. Her bloopers (“an allegory on the banks of the Nile,” “the pineapple of perfection”) still get laughs, but the role’s possibilities are barely suggested.
Elsewhere, the cast is stronger. Both Bauer (Wines’ son) and Douglas are charismatic romantic leads, and if their lady loves have less to do, well, that’s mostly the author’s fault. David Marks is a blustery comic whirlwind as a matchmaking father, and Richard Pilcher is a genuine riot as a timid country squire whose attempts at catching the eye of urban belles turn him into a hapless fashion victim.
James Kronzer’s revolving scrims provide an elegantly symmetrical playpen for these overgrown childrenat one point, the entire cast threads its way from room to room as the setting spins for no better reason than that it looks fetching. Kronzer’s one miscalculation is a distractingly noisy fountain that burbles through the expository sequences. And the other technical credits are handled capably, if a bit obviously at times. Christina Anderson’s overstated character assassination by costumeMrs. Malaprop is draped in electric blueis right in sync with the prevailing mood, which concentrates on individual moments and effects rather than an effective comic whole. When the moments workand more often than not, they dothe evening is perfectly pleasant. CP