The story of multiple mistaken identities centers on dashing Jack Absolute (David Weber), who pretends to be penniless Ensign Beverly to woo Lydia (Amee Vyas), an incurable addict of romance novels. When his bombastic father (Doug Kaye) arranges a union between the "real" Jack and Lydia, Jack realizes that he's literally his own worst rival.
Compared to the comedies of Shakespeare and Moliere, The Rivals shows off refreshingly accessible wordplay. Once you get past the exposition, you discover flamboyant insults, ironic asides and comedic rants that could be highly ornate "Seinfeld" dialogue. The role of Mrs. Malaprop (Heidi Cline) even inspired the term "malapropism" from her verbal tic of using words improperly: "Alliterate him from your memory!" The shtick holds up so well that you hang on her every sentence, waiting for the flubbed word. But Cline's theatrical gusto - not to mention her wobbling, watermelon-sized wig - would earn laughs anyway.
Not surprisingly, Tavern favorite Jeff McKerley plays Jack's servant Fag as an insolent, foppish drama queen: There's no way to play against the stereotype, so McKerley makes the most of it. Vyas proves to be a young actress to watch, giving Lydia the amusing, faux-jaded qualities of a teenager who takes herself too seriously.
But if you're going to stage a long comedy - and the Shakespeare Tavern's The Rivals stretches out for about three-and-a-half frickin' hours, including intermissions - the ensemble must be uniformly excellent. Instead, the actors prove highly uneven: In the witty role of Jack, David Weber suggests a kind of vain, California blankness.
In a shorter show, you could wait out the weaker players, but The Rivals' sheer duration is exhausting. At least the production proves that, as a craftsman of timeless comedy, the seldom-staged Sheridan has few rivals.
The Rivals plays through May 29 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St. Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m., Sun., 6:30 p.m. $19.50-$24.50. 404-874-5299. www.shakespearetavern.com.