Decades ago, the brilliant and beloved acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were doing a play together. Lunt was surprised and pleased when his line asking for a cup of tea received a large laugh. Over time, however, the laugh disappeared. Lunt asked Fontanne if she had any idea why, and she said, "You've been asking for a laugh. Before you were asking for a cup of tea."
It's possible that this story is apocryphal, but that doesn't matter. Its point is absolutely true. Asking for a laugh is almost never the way to get one. The better choice is to play the character's reality, want what the character wants, do what the character does, and let the laughs take care of themselves
In the Pearl Theatre Company's current production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic play, The Rivals, the performers don't ask for laughs--they demand them. And the harder they demand, the less funny and more tedious they become. Since many of the actors have previously given multifaceted, beautifully timed, wonderful performances, I have to assume that it was director Hal Brooks who led (or pushed) them into the vast vats of shtick on display. (Oh, and since it's 2014, I think the Pearl could have done better than to cast only one person of color and then have him play a servant.)
The flaws of this production underline the flaws of the play. The plot is familiar: person A loves person B but doesn't have enough money to suit person B's guardian (person C), but person A is secretly rich, and person C is disguising herself in letters to person D as person B, and so on. Parts of it are wonderful satire, but parts are simply boring, particularly in this production where it is impossible to care about anyone. An even bigger problem is that the silly, neurotic jealousy of 1775 reads nowadays as creepy possessive borderline-stalking. And while Mrs. Malaprop is the Ur word-mangler, we've seen so many of her descendants in so many plays, movies, and TV shows that her humor seems almost cliche.
Of course, there are reasons that The Rivals is still performed in 2014. But this production, far below the Pearl's usual high quality, does it no favors.
(sixth row center; press ticket)