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A Tongue’s Delightful Slip

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Lincoln Center revives 1775’s sitcom blueprint; Kathy Lee Gifford’s debut

One word describes the unabashed and uncommonly delightful production of “The Rivals” at Lincoln Center––delicious. It is as light as a feather and completely engaging from beginning to end.

Of course, Richard Brinsely Sheridan’s play is a completely conventional story of mistaken identity, lovers’ spats, intrigues and comical stereotypes, but one also has to remember that it was written in 1775, a time when these conventions were the mainstay of theater. While it is awash in silliness and, to modern ears, stilted language, director Mark Lamos has done a wonderful job making the piece accessible. It’s impossible to watch this production and not be aware that these are the very stories of romantic love gone wrong that Shakespeare was spinning, Austen and Wilde were parodying and contemporary sitcom writers rely upon as a virtual Hornbook for plot devices.

The story, which is full of constant and hilarious twists and surrounds Jack Absolute who woos Lydia Languish under an assumed identity and in a romantic, classically adolescent way. His courtship involves notes, secrets, misunderstandings, opportunistic servants smarter then their masters, a slate of rivals for the hand of the soon-to-be-wealthy Miss Languish, a potentially fatal duel and a happy ending—everything, in fact, that you could ask for to be perfectly diverted. Yet even within the confines of convention, Sheridan managed with “The Rivals” to create one of the most enduring characters of literature—Mrs. Malaprop, the woman who in her pretensions of education blithely misuses every word of more than two syllables, a device later employed by writers from Dickens to the creators of Archie Bunker and a perfectly human characteristic that today causes a cringe in speechwriters for George W. Bush. In short, the production feels fresh and current, effervescent and––here’s that word again––delicious.

The thrust of the play is that while things may go awry, all will ultimately be right with the social order. The right people will marry the appropriate spouses and the world as we know it will go on, That theme is wonderfully brought to life by the cast.

As Mrs. Malaprop, Dana Ivey attacks the role with the kind of buoyant abandon that makes her irresistibly endearing even in her ignorance. Her Mrs. Malaprop is confident in her ineptness, girlish in her flirtation and one only wishes that Sheridan had written more for her. As Jack Absolute, Matt Letscher is the consummate leading man who can do comedy—a rare gift—who nonetheless gives a balanced and controlled performance. Richard Easton is all blowsy mugging and pomposity as Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack’s father––and while such a posture could be overdone in other hands, it is dead on here. James Urbaniak plays Jack’s servant with a perfect dryness, and Emily Bergl as Lydia Languish is a wonderful cartoon of 17-year-old romanticism as viewed by an older and more hardened author.

Other notables include Keira Naughton as Lucy’s maid, Jim True-Frost as the fop, Faukland, Carrie Preston in a charming performance as Lucy’s bosom friend Julia––the two, of course, have a falling out later resolved––and Jeremy Shamos as the country gentleman, Bob Acres. The dependable Brian Murray delivers a classic performance as Sir Lucious O’Trigger, an older Irishman who thinks Lucy is in love with him.

The design of the production is sumptuous and appropriate as well. John Lee Beatty’s set is versatile and appealing, especially the Fragonard-inspired backdrop, with locations indicated by the entry of different chandeliers—a touch that is delightfully comic. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are intelligent and whimsical, using amazing fabrics and treatments, beautifully designed to indicate time of day, social station and even region. His use of fabrics, finishes and colors is nothing short of brilliant throughout. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting is top-notch as well.

It’s tempting to say that Sheridan wrote a nearly foolproof play, but while much of the success of the play is in the script, the execution really is all, and for sheer pleasure and wonderful entertainment, “The Rivals” is just the ticket.

If I told you that Kathie Lee Gifford had written a musical, your first inclination might be to scoff. After all, Gifford is associated more with her former talk-show job than musical theater. Well, scoff all you will, but she scores with “Under the Bridge,” a family musical that, for the most part, works beautifully.

Based on the children’s book, “The Family Under the Bridge,” this is a tale of a homeless family that finds itself again thanks to some unlikely heroes—fellow homeless people, gypsies and the like—in the underworld of Paris. Yes, it’s simplistic. Yes, it’s predictable. But what’s really remarkable is that Gifford reveals herself as one of the few storytellers writing for children and families unafraid to look at the darker sides of the stories and, like the popular young person’s author Lemony Snicket, she earns her credibility by acknowledging that children are complex and it’s not always a “sunny day, everything’s a-okay” as the song from “Sesame Street” goes.

Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics and some additional music, and David Pomeranz who wrote the music, reveal a level of sophistication that’s lacking from most family entertainment. The lyrics are straightforward and intelligent and the music is often quite rich, making it consistently interesting. They haven’t skimped on fun either, in the classic tale of plucky youngsters who befriend an old curmudgeon, Armand, and warm his heart. Director Eric Schaeffer has made good use of the small stage at the Zipper Theatre and the versatile set by Jim Krozner is wonderful.

The cast is strong. Broadway veteran Ed Dixon gives a sensitive and technically masterful performance as Armand. Florence Lacey sparkles as the gypsy Mireli and Jacquely Piro is wonderful as the children’s mother, Madame Calcet. The children are also great—most notably Maggie Watts, as Suzy, who has a strong voice and acts with a maturity greater than her age.

The view of Paris is stereotypical, but no different than the view of London in “Mary Poppins,” and this is a story largely for children. Gifford accomplishes something truly remarkable in this culture: She proves that it’s possible to talk to children and evoke feeling without being condescending or relying on cheap sentiment. What you see on the stage, however abstract, is real, and if you leave this show unsmiling and dry-eyed, then your heart is in need of a serious tune-up.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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