- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

Director Halo Wines production of "The Rivals" at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts offers generous dollops of laughter and lightness, although its not as delectably meringue as her "Tartuffe" last season.
This comedy of eros by Richard Brinsley Sheridan provides plenty of eye candy to savor. Scenic designer James Kronzer has re-created 18th-century Bath, England, in a revolving set that captures the airy cream and gray elegance of a playground for the rich. Clever use of scrims turns the set into sort of an upper-crust funhouse, as cast members wind through the twisting and turning corridors making mischief and playing tricks on one another. A working fountain in the middle of the set evokes frisky folks taking to the waters at Bath.
Christina Andersons costumes are bold and bright, employing colors you dont usually see purple and orange in Mrs. Malaprops bulwarklike ensembles, royal blue and canary yellow, rich eggplant and crimson reds. The actors inhabiting those costumes seem positively springlike in their peppiness and tendencies to break into a capering dance at the slightest provocation.
In "The Rivals," Sheridan (himself an Irishman) wittily lambastes the pretensions of 18th-century fashionable society the gossip and hypocrisy, the rampant materialism, the outlandish codes of honor and manners.
What is at stake here is love, as two young couples try to get to the altar in one piece. Capt. Jack Absolute (Christopher Michael Bauer) loves heiress Lydia Languish (Peggy Yates), but to test her sincerity he is pretending to be a lowly officer named Beverly. Lydia is besotted by Beverly, much to the distress of her battle-ax, language-mangling aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Ida Elrod Eustis).
Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute (David Marks), a pompous oaf with a fearsome temper who wields his cane like a club, have concocted that Jack should marry Lydia. But how can Jack admit his ruse to his beloved? A saucy maid, Lucy (Kathleen Coons), has increased the mischief by making the volatile Sir Lucius OTrigger (Paul Morella) believe the love letters from Mrs. Malaprop are actually from the comely Lydia.
The other pair of lovers are the well-born Julia (MaryBeth Wise) and Faulkland (Mark Gerald Douglas), a friend to Jack. Faulkland is another paranoid tester, who tries Julias patience and generosity to the limit by constantly questioning her constancy.
Thrown into the mix is a delightful character, Bob Acres (Richard Pilcher), a country squire desperately trying to acquire some aristocratic polish, but he hilariously bungles every time he tries to be something other than his straight-arrow self. The endless swoops and swirls of his bow is in itself worth the price of admission.
The lovers part, then they unite, and then they part again in this elaborate dance of courtship. Meanwhile, the elders plot and gossip and make inspired fools of themselves. Throughout, fans flutter, petticoats flounce, coattails fly and we hear lines such as "This is caprice."
The characters are what make this production such mirthful pleasure. Mrs. Malaprops creative use of English is a howl. Such lines as "he is the very pineapple of politeness," "alliterate him from your memory, my dear," "my affluence over my niece is very small" and "our retrospection will now be in the future" are just some of the gems, polished even brighter by Miss Eustis comically snooty delivery.
That these malaprops did not evoke hearty laughter was a bit disconcerting, making one think we may be in a post-literate society after all.
Mr. Marks is superb as Sir Anthony Absolute, adding a droll twist to his lines that sounds as if he is constantly tasting something savory. He also knows how to draw out a laugh, as when he props up his gout-riddled leg accompanied by a symphony of moans and groans.
In contrast, his slippery and spineless son, played by Mr. Bauer, is all lightness and puckish, fleeting humor. Mr. Bauer sees his character as fast-dancing, and he employs quick wit and fancy footwork to get out of the scrapes in which he finds himself.
The production has some dry spots where you can see the cast laboring for comedy, and the play seems to fully occupy its nearly three-hour running time. Yet Miss Wines keeps "The Rivals" light on its feet, and for the most part you are in splendid company with this cast of striving, bumbling characters.

WHAT: "The Rivals"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays (except May 20). 2 p.m. Sundays and May 5, 12 and 19, through May 20
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
TICKETS: $15 to $34
PHONE: 301/924-3400

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