I doubt if in 1777 Richard Brinsley Sheridan was giving much thought to whether or not his comedy of manners would have any relevance to New York audiences in 239 years. But here he is again, at the Lortel Theatre off Broadway in a first class production offered by the Red Bull Theatre Company, under the direction of Marc Vietor. Red Bull is named after a leading theatre in Shakespere’s London, and its mission is to create a home for plays of heightened language and epic expression. Its company includes the excellent character actors Dana Ivey and Mark Linn-Baker and a supporting company of devoted and dedicated actors who are comfortable and adroit at playing high comedy without camp or condescension.
The School For Scandal is a challenge for a contemporary company, for it is not only a very funny satirical farce, but it has a few wise things to say about the society of its time which, except for the wigs, fans and costumes is not all that unlike our very own society as we populate the 21st century. There is still a lot of hypocrisy, pomposity, self-delusion, ambition, competition, prejudice, and duplicity going around, and Sheridan artfully leads us as we follow a group of high born socialites and their servants through the particulars of all of these items in his time.
There are three groups of characters, loosely interconnercted, starting with Lady Sneerwell and her coterie, the Teazle household with its mismatched husband and wife and their ward, and the brothers Charles and Joseph Surface who, along with Mrs. Candour, Mr. Snake, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Mr. Crabtree, Mr. Midas, and Sir Toby Bumper are all amusingly written and aptly named. Most importantly they are also very well-played.
Mrs. Candour’s delicious monologue about other people who seem always to be talking is delivered by the resplendent Dana Ivey with total solipsism. She has no idea she is describing herself. Mark Linn-Baker, always welcome season after season, is right on target as the cuckolded Sir Peter Teazle, who is technically married to the impossibly self serving younger wife (from the country).
She in turn is played with a delicately comic touch by Helen Cespedes, a John Houseman Award winner at the Juilliard School. Frances Barber has had a rich and varied 30 year career, and makes every nasty remark that emanates from Lady Sneerwell sound freshly minted. She prattles on a mile a minute, but she hits her mark by knowing just what to do with the vicious comments Mr. Sheridan gives her as ammunition. Jacob Dresch’s “Snake” is an original comic invention. I’m quibbling, but in my opinion he or the director might consider just a bit of editing to put him right up there with the best of the amusingly insane character actors like Franklyn Pangborn, Eric Blore in the wacky film comedies of the 1930s, and a lot more recently, Brooks Ashmanskas, Roger Bart, and Brad Oscar onstage.
The romantic center of the comedy involves the lovely Nadine Malouf as Sir Peter’s ward Maria (“an heiress”) and her two suitors, the brothers Charles and Joseph Surface. Joseph is solid and respectable; Charles is a free soul who is having a jolly life. Christian Demaris and Christian Conn play them both well. But there are surprises in both of them, and finding out what they are is half the fun.
Director Mark Vietor has kept this merry frolic spinning all evening long, with the help of a very flexible set designed by Anna Louizos, rich and ripe costumes by Andrea Lauer, and spotlighting par excellence by Russell H. Champa that keeps focus cleanly as walls spin, backdrops change and furniture glides effortlessly and with great speed.
The original music and sound design by Greg Pliska nicely led us into each act, announcing the jaunty style of the piece. Charles LaPointe’s wigs make their own sizable contribution, helping each actor who wears one (and that’s just about every one) to transform and time travel back to 1777.
For a different sort of treat, hie yourself to the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street for a rare visit to the reigning hit of the 1777 London Season at the Drury Lane. And lest you think this ancient play will appeal mostly to ancient audiences, the young lady of about 13 sitting in front of me was infectiously laughing for the entire 2 l/2 hours.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission..