THE RIVALS by Richard Brinsley Sheridan: directed by Mikel Lambert; designed by Russell Melheny; costumes by Bary Allen Odom; lighting by Hugh Lester; with Leonardo Cimino, Eric Zwemmer, Ralph Cosham, David Cromwell, June Hansen, Glynis Bell, Marion Lines, Floyd King, Moultrie Patten, Anne Stone and Jim Beard.

At Folger Theatre through Jan. 25.

Time has not diminished the appeal of "The Rivals," a wonderfully convoluted comedy written in the Indian summer of English high manners at the end of the 18th century.

This is the play that features Mrs. Malaprop, one of the enduring buffoons in theatrical history, who is given to misusing polysyllables in such contexts as "I hope you will represent her to the young man as an object not altogether illegible," and "Few gentlemen nowadays know how to value the ineffectual qualities in a woman."

It is a pleasure to report that Mrs. Malaprop is in good hands at the Folger Theatre, where Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play opened last night, 205 years after he wrote it. June Hansen looks perfect for the part, has a voice that could shatter glass if it cared to, and plays the character with just the right overbearing, middleaged innocence. It is a further pleasure to report that the Folger has turned "The Rivals" into a feast for the eye, providing a wardrobe as bright, sprawling and overcomplicated as the play itself.

The bad news is that director Mikel Lambert seems to have encouraged the actors who play the young romantic leads to play them in a smirking, heavy-handed, self-ridiculing manner that disrupts the pace and texture of the comedy. Glynis Bell acts the part of Lydia Languish with an extravagance of voice and gesture that only compounds the apparent age discrepancy between her and her character. And both Bell and Eric Zwenner, as Jack Absolute, seem so amused by everything they do that it would almost be superfluous for the audience to be amused with them.

The premise of the play is that the rebellious Lydia will reject any and all wealthy candidates for her hand because she wants to spite Mrs. Malaprop, her guardian aunt, and because she thinks it would be more romantic to marry beneath her. Knowing this, Jack Absolute, who loves her, pretends to be the impoverished "Ensign Beverly" in order to win Lydia's affection. And Mrs. Malaprop, to keep her niece from rendezvousing with this unworthy man, locks Lydia in her quarters.

Meanwhile, Jack's father, Sir Anthony Absolute, has independently settled on Lydia as his son's future wife -- and he has won Mrs. Malaprop's approval for the match. But when Sir Anthony starts to tell Jack of his choice, the son resists and the father disowns him, neither comprehending, of course, that they have the same woman in mind.

Lydia and Jack are far from being a witless ingenue and juvenile. Yet even in a comedy of this broadness, the romantic thread of the story needs to be treated with more respect than Bell and Zwenner (and Lambert) give it. Still, if you can get used to their arch manner, this production has many compensating pleasures.

One of them is Leonardo Cimino as Sir Anthony. In a spectacular getup -- featuring a chewing-gum wig, a purple coat, a multicolored waistcoat with a Beardsleyesque pattern, white ruffles everywhere, blue ribbons atop white stockings, and shoes with red heels -- this short, wrinkled, ancient-looking actor is a delight as he barks orders at his incongruously tall, handsome son.

He also gets to deliver one of the play's terrific lines. Having informed the boy that he will soon receive an independent fortune, Sir Anthony belately mentions that a prearranged marriage is part of the deal. Jack's expression turns sour, and his father chews him out for wanting a say in the matter.

"You have the estate -- you must take it with the livestock on it," says Sir Anthony.