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Theatre in Review: The School for Scandal (Red Bull Theater/Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Mark Linn-Baker, Henry Stram. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The near-scandalous thing about Marc Vietor's staging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy of malice is that it contains a fair amount of the latter but not nearly enough of the former. It's a mystery: Vietor has put together a polished, handsome production; why doesn't it fizz like cyanide-infused champagne? Sheridan's entire louche company of characters is here -- the scheming, acid-tongued Lady Sneerwell; the hypocritical Joseph Surface and his dissolute brother, Charles; the tireless gossip, Sir Benjamin Backbite; and the saucy, selfish Lady Teazle, who merrily goes about, doing her best to bankrupt her much-older spouse -- all of them ready to commit any sin in the name of fashion or the pursuit of pleasure. Somewhere along the way, however, too many of their laughs have gone missing, even in the famous "screen scene," a seminal bit of farce that goes surprisingly astray.

Admittedly, the performance I attended got off to a shaky start when Frances Barber, as Lady Sneerwell, struggled with her lines for several minutes. Still, the scenes set in her household -- which gives the play its title -- are the most successful, largely due to the presence of Dana Ivey as Mrs. Candour, the moralistic old crone who, while disgustedly reporting on the malice of others -- "The world is so censorious that no character escapes," she clucks -- manages to dish more dirt than anyone else in London. The peerless Ivey frames her face into the very picture of disapproval -- "Tale bearers are as bad as the tale makers," she insists -- then delivers yet another shocker, ending with a riotous expression of disapproval mixed with irrepressible delight. Mrs. Candour is a fairly minor character, but, thanks to Ivey, she provides the lion's share of the evening's laughs.

Mark Linn-Baker has his moments as Sir Peter Teazle, who impulsively weds a country lass, then stands by in a state of apoplexy as she blossoms into a major shopaholic and flirt. ("When an old bachelor takes a young wife, what is he to expect?" he thunders, indicting himself.) Linn-Baker is a specialist at expressing impotent fury, and he has a solid partner in Helen Cespedes, as a giddy, golden-haired Lady Teazle ("If you wanted authority over me, you should have adopted me and not married me."). But their witty sparring never quite bubbles over the way it should, and their scenes have a hit-or-miss quality, possibly because Linn-Baker hasn't injected the right note of comic rage into the role.

The play's third strand, involving the Surface brothers, is the weakest. Joseph has cultivated a false air of virtue while Charles has spent his last penny drinking and roistering, but, in Sheridan's canny view, the latter is by far the better person. (Joseph is the approved suitor for Maria, Sir Peter's ward, but she loves Charles, whom she has been forbidden to see; as played by Nadine Malouf, Maria looks like she'd rather be taking the waters at Bath, so little interest in the proceedings does she evince.) The brothers' fortunes are thrown into disarray by the appearance of Sir Oliver Surface, their wealthy uncle, who arrives from the Near East with a plan to test his nephews' characters and award the bulk of his fortune to the one who makes the best showing. This plot line bogs down seriously -- in part, I think, because Henry Stram lacks the stature and gravity that Oliver needs; one never feels that he holds the young men's fates in his hands. Also, I always thought that the screen scene, in which Joseph keeps stashing unwelcome visitors to his apartment in various hideaways, was a sure-fire comic interlude, but it never really takes off here; Christian Conn is a paragon of articulate duplicity as Joseph, but he may not be a natural farceur.

He's not alone; the company is technically skilled but wildly uneven in humorous comedic ability. Once she recovered, Barber's gravelly voice delivered each of Sneerwell's lines with a generous coating of arsenic, noting the "careless manner in which the widow Ocre chalks her wrinkles" and remarking, with false charity, that a rival's manner is "particularly graceful, considering she never had the least education; for you know her mother was a Welsh milliner and her father a sugar-baker at Bristow." Jacob Dresch, his nostrils permanently flared, is an insinuating presence as Snake, Sneerwell's confederate, who smears her enemies with forged compromising letters. Christian DeMarais' Charles is a charming rake, equally besotted with Maria and the next bottle of wine. Ben Mehl is a steady delight as four wildly different manservants, each with a different accent and attitude. Ramsey Faragallah is an excellent voice of reason as Master Ranji, from the Punjab, who, most unusually for the time, steers the plot to a successful conclusion. But Ryan Garbayo and Derek Smith disappoint as Benjamin Backbite and his uncle, Mr. Crabtree, both of whom sneer effectively but not really amusingly.

The production looks terrific, thanks to Anna Louizos' set, defined by upstage and downstage walls, in the Georgian style, that can expand and contract to create various locations, many of them offering views of the London skyline circa 1777. Andrea Lauer's costumes add amusing modern touches to the characters' period wear, such as the leopard-print bodice on Sneerwell's extravagant red gown and the brightly colored wigs -- in green, blue, and other hues -- that rest like sea-foam on the heads of several minor male characters. (Charles G. LaPointe's wig and hair designs necessarily complete each costume.) Russell H. Champa's colorful lighting washes and Greg Pliska's original music and sound effects -- one of which makes amusing use of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," a song that acquires a whole new meaning here -- are both solid achievements.

We don't get The School for Scandal regularly enough that any fan of Sheridan can afford to overlook this at-least competent production, but one of the English-speaking theatre's great comedies deserves more glittering treatment than it gets here. This school delivers scandal with surprisingly little sting. -- David Barbour

(25 April 2016)

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