PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Rivals: Hustling and Bustling

By Harry Haun
December 17, 2004

There may be sillier sights than Dana Ivey in full dither, scooting across stage in an 18th-century bustle, littering Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont with malformed verbiage, but one didn't seem to come to mind Dec. 16 when a revival of The Rivals bowed there.

Yes, Mrs. Malaprop rides again, blithely mangling the language as she goes, and it was obvious to all who know the work of this yeoman actress that she was at high tide, eloquently misspeaking every aria Richard Brinsley Sheridan gave his archetype airhead.

"Dana was born to play this role!" trilled playwright Alfred Uhry at intermission—and he knows her well, having given a ride to the big time with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy. "I don't think there's any limit to what she can do if given a chance."

Clearly, this was one of those chances, and Ivey stepped out of the character ranks and into the star spot with seamless ease. "I had a ball!" she declared when she made her star entrance after the show at the reception held on the orchestra level of Avery Fisher Hall.

"I have a wonderful time playing her. I could do it forever. In 1998 I played her at Williamstown, but we only had two weeks of rehearsal and it was very different—but great fun and a wonderful production. I love her grandiosity and her love of language, whether she gets it right or not. I love that. I love that she thinks she is getting it right.

"I studied in England, and I've done a lot of period work in Canada, but I haven't had the opportunity to do anything in this period since I've been in New York, so it's a thrill."

She said Jess Goldstein had a lot to do with her characterization, too. "He is a master, and, goodness knows, he has made the most beautiful costumes for this. Just gorgeous."

Goldstein didn't attend the reception, knee-deep as he was in his next project: the Beach Boys musical, Good Vibrations. From Bath, England, in 1775 to the California beach of the 1960s—a fellow could get the bends that way, but it certainly keeps him untyped!

Seconding the handsomeness of this production was the set of John Lee Beatty—a town-square centerpiece, which, with revolving-wheel furniture and chandeliers that go up and down, keeps the farce flowing smoothly. "Yeah, I had a stack of books on Bath, and I'd been there a few times as a child and as an adult so it wasn't hard work," Beatty admits. "In fact, it was a lot of fun to research because you really want to research it for the rest of your life." But, alas, he can't. He and the show's lighting designer, Peter Kaczorowski, are now focusing on the East Coast college scene for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which reaches Broadway in March, about the time Beatty's Doubt does.

Character actors had a good night, too. Richard Easton and Brian Murray, both pet vets of Lincoln Center, huffed and puffed and blustered about the Beaumont, as the fops flanking Mrs. Malaprop—Sir Anthony Absolute and Sir Lucius O'Trigger, respectively.

Easton, a Tony winner for Tom Stoppard's (and LCT's) The Invention of Love, was happy with his role. "I love him because I think he's Sheridan. Some people think that the author was Bob Acres [a pretentious hayseed with social aspirations, played by Jeremy Shamos], but I think not. I think that he was Sir Anthony because he's a wild creature."

Murray, whose character brings ancient ardor to the young-love matching in the center ring, is also pleased with his part. "I liked him because he's Irish—besides, Anthony was gone—so I'm happy to be in this fine company and work with [director] Mark Lamos."

He even knows where his next classic is coming from. "I'm doing Prospero in Pittsburgh. I go down a week after we close here to do The Tempest. That'll be in February."

Seated with Murray at the party is his frequent stage wife, Marian Seldes (The Play About the Baby, The Butterfly Collection). She has a play to post as well and will "as soon as they get a theatre." It's a new play and a contemporary playwright, she hints.

While the seasoned pros stole scenes from the sidelines, a buoyantly young cast handled the revelry and rivalry at the heart of the play. Sheridan supplied a double load of young lovers—Sir Anthony's son, Captain Jack Absolute (Matt Letscher) pursues Mrs. Malaprop's niece, Lydia Languish (Emily Bergl), while their actions are echoed by their best friends, Julia Melville (Carrie Preston) and Faulkland (Jim True Frost).

Complicating matters a bit more: Lydia has a feisty maid, played by Keira Naughton, whose dad (James Naughton) dropped by to help her celebrate her opening as soon as he finished his regular night job (playing Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn's Democracy).

Bergl is particularly pleased to be in this company. "Usually," she says, "I'm the outsider, a character with more edge. I never get to play the pretty, slightly ditzy girl, so it's wonderful that I get to try my hand at this. I like the show because it's about people who, by flaws of character, get in their own way—something we can all relate to. Sheridan had such an amazing fondness for these characters, and love, and I think that comes across."

Preston thinks she picked the best part, too. "When I first read it, I wasn't sure," she admits, "but the minute I started speaking it, I thought, `Oh, this is the part that's good.'

"It's such a great company. I've know a lot of them socially, but I've never worked with any of them. And I'd never worked with Mark Lamos. When I went in to audition for him, I said, 'We've been destined to work together for so long.' Thankfully, he agreed."

Beaming proudly beside her was her husband, Michael Emerson, the original Oscar Wilde of Gross Indecency. He's just back from a long shoot below the Mexico border, filming the Zorro sequel, The Legend of Zorro, starring Antonio Bandaras and Catherine Zeta Jones. "He's one of those Pinkerton detectives on the trail," she says. "He always plays these nasty parts. I dunno why. He's the nicest person on the planet."

Extracurricularly, Preston and Letscher are paired in a December-due independent film, Straight Jacket, a comedy about a gay movie star of the '50s who weds a studio secretary.

Herb Foster, with a highly castable face that convinces in other centuries, supplies some local color early on as the boozer of Bath, replete with a red nose. "That was the idea of the flush makeup. He's behind the horse and with the stable guys, so he's drinking a lot."

Among the four footmen in the show is a Hero, as in the last (Nathan Lane) go-around of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A tad overqualified, Jim Stanek concedes, "but I'm also covering for James Urbaniak, Jeremy Shamos and David Manis. The great thing about that is all are character roles. No one ever hires me for character roles."

There's another great thing about that—well, good and bad. "I turned down a new musical in Philly the same day that I got this offer. Ethan McSweeney directed the one in Philly, and it's supposedly a big smash. I was going to be the lead in it, but I turned it down because I could be home with my wife [Beth] and kids [Cameron, three and a half, and Mason, one year old on Dec. 23]. That's life. You have to decide. My agents fought me tooth and nail on this, but I wanted to be with my family during the holidays. That was first and foremost. And then, to be at Lincoln Center doing a play isn't so shabby either."

When it became apparent that The Frogs would not be jumping as far or as long as had been hoped, Lincoln Center Theatre's co-director, Andre Bishop, sent out some S.O.S.'s to various directors, including Lamos, who had helmed a successful production of A.R. Gurney Jr.'s Big Bill last year—and it was Lamos who suggested The Rivals.

"I had done a production of it about 10 years ago," he says, "and, when Andre called and said, 'I'm looking for ideas. Do you have something that you think might be good for the Beaumont for the holiday season?', I suddenly thought of The Rivals because I thought it'd sit well in the Beaumont. And I really love the play and knew it would be such fun."

McSweeney, who is on the brink of announcing the play he will be directing for Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre, confirmed the hit status of his Philly frolic, Chasing Nicolette, a new musical by Pete Kellogg and David Friedman, which opened Saturday there at the Prince Music Theatre and netted "a bunch of great reviews. Bronson Pinchot is headlining, playing a comic servant par excellence. We expect the show will run through the second week of January—and then, hopefully, at a theatre near you."

LTC is always good about having its past playwrights in attendance for its openings, hence the presence of Uhry, Gurney and William Finn. Gurney admitted an uncertainty about Grace, the Grace Kelly musical biography he and the late Cy Coleman were writing for director Michael Blakemore, but says he has "a few other irons in the fire."

Finn is toiling over a new musical with Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which his Falsettos director, James Lapine, will open Feb. 7 at Second Stage with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jose Llana and Celia Keenan-Bolger.

The composer confesses he's a bit surprised to be involved in the project and got involved in it in a highly roundabout way, thanks to another of LTC's favorite playwrights. "Wendy Wasserstein's nanny was in a nonmusical version of the show when it was done downtown. Wendy saw it and she thought that I'd be the right person to add music. She was right. I loved it, and I've been working on it about a year. Unlike most of my shows, this is a heterosexual date show. I don't know how I wrote this."

A new brain, perhaps.

Chip Zien, Finn's longtime friend and on-stage frog (in A New Brain), is also readying a musical, sharing villainy with Robert Sella in the upcoming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang .

Daniel Sullivan, a key director at Lincoln Center, caught The Rivals with two of the actresses he'll be introducing on Broadway (at the Biltmore) Feb. 3 in Donald Margulies' Brooklyn BoyAri Graynor and Mimi Lieber. "It's one of Donald's funniest plays," says the man who helmed Margulies' Sight Unseen and Pulitzer Prize winning Dinner With Friends. "It has a good deal of charm and it continues his identity search, which is always one of his themes—how you grow away from your past."

After that, Sullivan will devote himself a name-heavy Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, which, so far, has not gone beyond Denzel Washington for Brutus. "I had done a production of Julius Caesar down in San Diego, and last summer when I was at South Coast with Brooklyn Boy, I got into touch with Denzel and we talked about the possibility of doing it—not for this season, for next season. Then, about a month ago, just when the American Buffalo production I was supposed to do with Lawrence Fishburne started to get shaky in terms of financing, a movie that Denzel was doing fell through. It was one of those play-or-pay things where if you do another movie during that period when you would have been filming it, you don't get your play-or-pay, which was a huge amount of money. [$20 million, according to some published reports]. So he called and said, 'Let's do it now.' And that's how it's happening this season. It's coming together quite quickly."