Perhaps the Red Bull Theater Co., which specializes in Jacobean theater classics, offered a break from its usual bloodthirsty fare, in the form of The School for Scandal, which closed this weekend. But though bodies are not stabbed, many a character's reputation lay murdered in the company’s revival of this scathing 1777 comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
At the end of a life in the rough-and-tumble worlds of the theater and politics, this Anglo-Irish playwright lamented: “It is a fact that I have scarcely ever in my life contradicted any one calumny against me ... I have since on reflection ceased to approve my own conduct in these respects. Were I to lead my life over again, I should act otherwise.” Sheridan seemed well aware of the potential price he and others prominent in society might pay, though, when he wrote this satire at age 26.
Toward the start of this sprightly production at the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street, music and sound designer Greg Pliska made wickedly effective use of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." It came just as the green-wigged Mr. Snake was just about to fire off an innuendo-filled missive that will leave a victim open to public ridicule. Truman Capote and Perez Hilton couldn’t have plunged into the job with more gusto.
Snake is also on hand when his ally in calumny, Lady Sneerwell, emerges from behind a screen after having just defecated. The screen here foreshadows its more comic (and more famous) use later in the play. But the scene was also a graphic signal to the audience that it was in for some dirty business for the next two hours.
In her youth, Lady Sneerwell tells the toadying Snake, she had been so wounded by “the envenomed tongue of slander” that nothing now gives her more pleasure than “reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.” At the moment, she has an even more powerful motive for deadly social skill: she wants to destroy the feelings of young, virginal Maria for the wastrel Charles Surface—a man who, despite herself, she covets.
If any playwright can be regarded as the missing link between Moliere and Wilde, it is Sheridan, who was heavily influenced by Restoration Comedies of the late 17th century. Like his theater forebears William Congreve and William Wycherley, he found rich material in the sexual mores of the English aristocracy. Besides Snake and Lake Sneerwell, these include the choleric, jealous Sir Peter Teazle; his flighty, far younger wife, Lady Teazle; the hypocritical Joseph Surface and his rakish but good-hearted brother Charles; the would-be poet Sir Benjamin Backbite and his equally odious uncle Crabtree, both vicious gossips; and Mrs. Candour, one of the deadliest in the entire “School,” with a kindly manner concealing a vicious tongue.
The names of these and other characters are the kind of broad clues that theatergoers used to receive about characters. Several of these figures are, in fact, not much more than caricatures. In a play filled with such characters and plot devices that are stock features of farce (e.g., an aging city husband and his far younger country wife, a hiding place under constant siege, etc.), much depends not only on original qualities that the playwright can bring to the table, but also the talent and energy of the director and cast reviving it.
Sheridan had a special talent for dialogue that economically evokes character ("If you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted me and not married me" is all we need to know about how Lady Teazle saucily taunts her husband for their age difference), that surprises and delights (“Now you’re going to be moral and forget you’re amongst friends,” says Lady Sneerwell to Joseph), or that rises to the level of an aphorism (“The world is so censorious that no character escapes," according to Mrs. Candour).
Among a uniformly fine cast, several actors stood out. Mark Linn-Baker earned widespread attention three decades ago for appearances on the big screen (My Favorite Year) and television (Perfect Strangers). But stage aficionados have come to know him as one of the most versatile and dependable character actors in New York, where he has appeared in You Can’t Take It With You and Twentieth Century. The role of Sir Peter might not have been in as high-profile productions as those, but Baker made the most of the opportunity to play this querulous husband all too fearful that he has made a dreadful mistake in marrying so late in life.
Two veteran actresses, Frances Barber and Dana Ivey, brought consummate skill to their roles as particularly deadly female gossips, Lady Sneerwell and Lady Candour, respectively. And Christian Conn brought dollops of shape-shifting, sometimes frantic energy to the proceedings as Joseph Surface.
Marc Vietor directed with aplomb, never letting the pace slip throughout.
The Red Bull Theater occupies a very special niche among Off-Broadway venues, as I noted, for instance, in this review of its production of The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, a few months ago. Yet I have not been disappointed yet in any of their shows, and The School for Scandal is no exception to the rule.