LYDIA LANGUISH: For heaven's sake! Tell us what is the matter!
MRS. MALAPROP: Why, murder's the matter! slaughter's the matter! killing's the matter! — but he can tell you the perpendiculars.
And mothers do matter. Just ask Dana Ivey, the Mrs. Malaprop of the production that brings Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals to a major Manhattan venue for the first time since the Eva Le Gallienne staging of 1942. Then it was the Shubert. Now it is Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, where, in a basement dressing room, we find Dana Ivey fishing out of a Whole Foods shopping bag a gorgeous, green wool throw given her by Audra McDonald (". . .she gave us all one"), the Lady Percy of last year's Henry IV at this same theatre. Dana Ivey was its Mistress Quickly. The star, Kevin Kline, occupied this very cubicle. "We call it the Falstaff Room."
Mrs. Malaprop wasn't — isn't — a mother. She's just a battleship maiden aunt who, in a ceaseless parade of her erudition, throws into her converse back-broken hifalutin words, or cockeyed approximations of same, at any and every opportunity. Ms. Ivey played her once before, under the direction of Roger Rees at the Williamstown Theatre Festival a half-dozen years ago. The present director is Mark Lamos. "When I was asked to do it now, I remembered what fun it was, and said, 'Oh yes, of course!' I'd already learned the text once. Six weeks later you can still say the lines. Six months later you have fragments. It comes in and out of your head."
MRS. MALAPROP: I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small. Turn around, Lydia: I blush for you! It must, a non-actor thinks, be difficult to fluidly speak such near-miss bastardizations of the English language.
"Oh no, they're fun to say."
Ever get any of them wrong? That is, get them right — straighten them out, without thinking?
"Once I did that in rehearsal. In the most famous one: 'Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs.' It came out: 'If I understand anything in this world . . .'"
She thinks Sheridan "was clearly writing almost a roman à clef" peopled with the folk he knew all around him in Georgian London, but as for Mrs. Malaprop, Ivey has been a little startled to learn (as a recent finding of some pieces of manuscript has disclosed) "that she was actually based on a character in a play written by Sheridan's mother."
MRS. MALAPROP: Well, Sir Anthony, since you desire it, we will not anticipate the past! — so mind, young people — our retrospection will be all to the future.
Miss Ivey, have you ever known a Mrs. Malaprop in real life?
"Not per se. But my mother, when she was getting on and became hard of hearing, would repeat what you were saying after you said it, and it would often come out of her mouth as a malaprop that was sometimes funnier than the original. I think everybody does it, one time or another, don't you?"
Dana Robins Ivey — Robins for grandmother Elizabeth Robins — is the Atlanta, Georgia, born-and-bred daughter of Atlanta, Georgia, born-and-bred Mary Nell Santacroce, who was an actress and speech therapist and taught at Georgia State University. Dana's stepfather is retired architect Dante Santacroce. Her father was nuclear physicist Hugh Daugherty Ivey, "who didn't like theatre all that much."
But oh, how mama liked it.
"I once saw her as Joan of Arc in Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine. I must have been eight. It impressed me a good deal, obviously."
How do you feel about "Gone With the Wind"? "What do you mean, how do I feel? I grew up with that. My grandmother knew Margaret Mitchell. My mother auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara for the movie. She was the queen of University of Georgia theatre. She died at 80, in 1999. She played Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy for well over a year at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, after I'd created it opposite Morgan Freeman at Playwrights Horizons. We think it's the first time a mother ever succeeded a daughter in the role instead of the other way round."
MRS. MALAPROP: Sir, you overpower me with good breeding. — He is the very pineapple of politeness!
There's something about malapropism that seems very applicable to political life. A certain president named Eisenhower and a certain vice president named Quayle pop into mind. Need we come closer yet?
"Oh well, I'm not qualified to speak on that," Ivey says, and stops. After a moment or two: "I have very rabid views."
Did you say rabid, ma'am?
Well, we now do have a president who . . .
"I'm not sure they're malapropisms. I don't think he has the hold on malaprops that she does. He just says stupid things. And for all her mistakes, she has good feelings. . ."
Dana Ivey has no strings, no connections, "no significant other." What she does have is ability, stage presence and work. She travels a lot, between work. There's a ring on her left hand that's "a present from me to myself." She got it last February in Sri Lanka. She's been three times to Egypt with Archaeological Tours and once to Sri Lanka. In London she knows — as this writer does — where the plaque is, off Piccadilly near Shepherd's Market, marking the residence there for some years of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop runs the antiques shop around the corner.
CAPTAIN JACK ABSOLUTE: I have hopes, madam, that time will bring the young lady —
MRS. MALAPROP: Oh, there's nothing to be hoped for from her! she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.