VJ Foster and Brian Finney star in "The Rivals." (Jean-Louis Darville )
Let's congratulate the Actors' Gang for at least bringing some novelty to our classical repertory. When American theater companies feel an itch to revive a work by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, they inevitably reach for "The School for Scandal," which has come to epitomize that post-Restoration genre known as 18th century comedy.
"The Rivals," Sheridan's first play, is a more unwieldy affair, but there are hearty laughs to be had from this scattershot spray of silliness from 1775. To enjoy them, however, one most be willing to plod through dizzying stretches of ludicrous plot.
The tale, set in the posh resort town of Bath, where the well born swan about in all their pretentious finery while firing off ornate zingers, is a romantic labyrinth that isn't always easy for contemporary ensembles to navigate. A recap of the story, centering on the competition for the hand of a marriageable beauty determined to marry a pauper, would be almost as vertiginous as the experience of the work onstage.
Perhaps extreme measures are called for, but the heavily stylized approach that David Schweizer takes in his production at the Ivy Substation has its drawbacks. The artifice is caked on so thick that it is hard to remember that this comedy of manner is also in part a comedy of character. Enacted by foppish clowns, the matrimonial intrigue can't help being a slog. The supporting players must carry the day.
True, the goofy flamboyance often seems a tad effortful. But the fireworks of Sheridan's verbal wit are still mesmerizing. Whenever the focus shifts from the central lovers to the tyrannical patriarch Sir Anthony Absolute and the linguistically erring Mrs. Malaprop (played respectively by VJ Foster and Patti Tippo on the night I attended), the years separating us from Sheridan's era melt into timeless hilarity.
"The Rivals," The Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, ends Nov. 17; tickets $25; (310) 838-4264 or http://www.theactorsgang.com; running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.