There is nothing idle about the gossip in “The School for Scandal.”
That is clear from the very first scene, when the well-named Lady Sneerwell, portrayed by the estimable Frances Barber in Red Bull Theater’s entertaining production, schemes with a man named Snake (Jacob Dresch.) Their artful use of character assassination aims to undermine a romance so that Lady Sneerwell can have the suitor for herself.
Snake, in a bright green wig, admires the Lady’s malice: “Everybody knows that Lady Sneerwell can do more with a word or a look than many can with the most labored detail even when they happen to have a little truth on their side to support it.”
In his 18th century farce, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan is surely skewering the people who devote their life to venomous libel – people not so unfamiliar to us today, perhaps. But he also just as surely enjoys them. Yes, the play takes the side of the upright, such as the good-natured Maria, who says “If to raise malicious smiles at the infirmities or misfortunes of others be the province of wit, Heaven grant me a double portion of dullness.” But nobody would have accused Sheridan of even a single portion; when the 26-year-old writer debuted “The School for Scandal” in 1777, it was (as the helpful Red Bull program informs us) an instant success.
In the hands of Red Bull, it is easy to see why, thanks to direction by Marc Vietor that puts a premium on clarity and pace, the entire design team which adds whimsy to the proceedings (such as Charles G. LaPointe’s series of unusually colored wigs), and an impressive cast that includes such familiar faces as Barber, Mark-Linn-Baker as a hapless husband, and Dana Ivey, who is priceless as Mrs. Candour, who in her every supposed effort to defend her friends’ reputations, maligns them.
“The School for Scandal” has the kind of convoluted plot we might associate with Moliere, and the epigrammatic dialogue and upside down logic that surely influenced Oscar Wilde.
The central plot involves Sir Oliver (Henry Stram), a wealthy man who’s spent many years in the East Indies. Upon his return to England, he has decided to test the mettle of his two nephews, to see who deserves his inheritance. Gossip has it that Joseph Surface (Christian Conn) is reputable while his brother Charles Surface (Christian DeMarais) is dissipated and extravagant.
Overlapping subplots involve the brothers’ informal guardian, Sir Peter Teazle (Linn-Baker), an older man who six months earlier married a young woman from the countryside, and argues with her about her extravagant spending and her general indifference to his wishes. As Lady Teazle, Helen Cespedes is delicious in delivering lines like: “If you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted me and not married me. I am sure you were old enough.”
Then there is the mutual attraction between Charles and Maria (Nadine Malouf), a romance that everybody seems to want to break up, by various and nefarious means, including seduction.
All of these plots crash together at the end for the requisite comic mayhem and happy ending, which reveals how appearances are almost always deceiving. Each also helps fuel some hilarious slander, inaccurate reporting, and backbiting among the scandalmongers (one is even named Sir Backbite.)
The text that Bull Theater uses is one that is both accessible to modern ears and attuned to modern New York sensibilities. (It is scrubbed of the subtle anti-Semitism the play is often accused of; the money-lender, who in most versions of the script is named Moses, is here renamed Midas.) But the language and plotting are still from the 18th century, and require more attentiveness than, say, Gossip Girl.
The School for Scandal
by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Red Bull Theater at Lucille Lortel Theater
Directed by Marc Vietor
Set design by Anna Louizos, costume design by Andrea Lauer, lighting design by Russell H. Champa, original music and sound design by Greg Pliska, wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe, Choreographed by Paul McGill
voice and dialect consulting by Deborah Hecht
Cast: Dana Ivey, Mark Linn-Baker, Frances Barber, Henry Stram, Helen Cespedes, Christian Conn, Christian DeMarais, Jacob Dresch, Ramsey Faragallah, Ryan Garbayo, Bradley Gibson, Nadine Malouf, Ben Mehl, and Derek Smith.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.
The School for Scandal is scheduled to run through May 8, 2016