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The School For Scandal

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Dana Ivey, Frances Barber, and Helen Cespedes
Photo by Carol Rosegg

As much as we'd all love to believe we're above petty gossip, that we've moved beyond the world where every social faux pas rates a clucking tongue and agitated whispers from our neighbors, we're really not, are we? Hasn't all the pinched-nose nastiness just moved to places where it's harder to engage and harder to defuse: online, primarily, where anonymous comments sections and did-you-hear-about-this websites make spreading the most damaging rumors and the dingiest barbs easier than ever? It might be for this reason that Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1777 play The School for Scandal seems just as relevant as it ever has.

That's the good news. The better news is that Marc Vietor's new revival of the play for Red Bull Theater, at the Lucille Lortel, lives up (or should that be down to?) the sparkling standard set by this effusively acerbic farce. Vietor's take-no-prisoners staging and a nearly ideal cast dive headfirst into all of Sheridan's tart-vinegar writing and come out with first-class Champagne. If the surroundings are, sometimes, a bit weirder than they ought to be, this only makes their accomplishment all the more impressive.

Not that it takes much to be impressed by the likes of Frances Barber and Jacob Dresch, who give two of the finest performances here. As Lady Sneerwell, the manager of the titular club that strives to elevate talking behind others' backs into an art form, she combines the grandest parts of Joan Crawford with the steel-belted guts of a true creature of the theatre (imagine an irradiated Zoe Caldwell) into one shiver-eliciting, madness-inducing package that's the very picture of casual evil. And Dresch, as Sneerwell's servant, Snake, is downright serpentine, not so much striding into a room as slithering, and throwing out angled shoulders and wide-eyed stares that give you every reason to believe he's hiding a forked tongue behind his lips. Oh yes, and the green hair doesn't hurt, either.

Green hair? Yes—it's a wig, of course, that's theoretically appropriate for the period, even if the color is a bit... out there. (Other heads, too, are dressed about as garishly.) This takes a bit of getting used to, and it doesn't entirely work, as it threatens to push this most inhumanely human of comedies straight into Technicolor fairy tale. What else could this seemingly reasonable man be hiding under his outrageous coif? Of course, Sneerwell has her own wig issues as well; she's seen putting it on (it's somewhat "Bride of Frankenstein meets an unprotected light socket in a wind storm") in the first scene and a great deal is made of it getting removed later—like everyone else, she's at the mercy of the delicacy and the conventions of her time. All this reinforces the underlying point that everyone is masquerading in different ways, but some get called out on it differently (and usually worse) than others.

Christian Demarais, Henry Stram, and Christian Conn
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The precise details unfold quickly as we learn of the tangled web of relationships over which Sneerwell presides, which involve her spurning the affections of the oozing Joseph Surface (Christian Conn), who happens to be in love with the heiress Maria (Nadine Malouf); Maria, alas, is more interested in Joseph's brother, Charles (Christian Demarais), which makes her an ideal target for Sneerwell's machinations. A few well-placed words about Charles and Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes), the young wife of the doddering Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker), will sort the whole thing out, right? And it's only a matter of time before a new spate of salacious sayings reveals Charles's own bouts with destitution as he prepares for the return of his long-absent uncle, Oliver (Henry Stram).

Even if you're not familiar with the play, you can probably picture the mistaken identities, secret conversations, and masquerades that result from these intertwined insanities—and, when they arrive in almost exactly the envisioned form, they don't disappoint. If Vietor doesn't add much of value to the traditional formula—his primarily contributions are the eye-rubbing color scheme and a heavy, acid-trip stylization for Snake's and Sneerwell's movements in the opening scene—he also doesn't get in the way. This is a talky, if precisely honed, evening that needs no help speaking for itself, and Vietor ensures it always has the microphone it needs to do just that.

It's tough to find fault with the cast, which takes the zaniness right to the edge but never over it unless absolutely necessary. Of particular note: Linn-Baker makes for a hootingly modern cuckold, Cespedes puts a frothy spin on his anguished wife, Stram finds an intellectual route through Oliver's deceptions, and Malouf casts Maria in an especially appealing and sensitive light. Though the estimable Dana Ivey is occupying the relatively small role of Sneerwell's "student," Mrs. Candour, she brings a high-stakes Downton Abbey stuffiness to the performance that reinforces her well-earned star status. Everyone is good, however, right down to ensemble member Ben Mehl, who really rocks those primary-color wigs as a succession of increasingly ridiculous servants.

Those headpieces, by the way, are the creations of designer Charles G. Lapointe, who, with costume designer Andrea Lauer, has found no shortage of juicy ways to extend and explode these characters. Anna Louizos's crisp drawing room set, which packs a few playful surprises of its own, is top-notch, as are Russell H. Champa's lights and Greg Pliska's sardonically amusing original music and sound design.

Yes, sorry folks: The dirty little secret of this School for Scandal is that, ultimately, everything meshes together with the raucous clarity it should. That should make it good enough for all but the most die-hard Sheridan purists. Speak nicely of them, for they have only the best of intents. But for the rest of the evening, all that bad talk leads to a darn good time.

The School For Scandal
Through May 8
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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