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A CurtainUp Review

The School For Scandal
By DavidLipfert

Lovers of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's witty language will not want to miss the Pearl Theater Company's revival of The School for Scandal. with its contrast between today's mores with Sheridan's take on late-eighteenth-century social values. I should precede this review by pointing out several omissions.

Missing from this production are the traditional prologue and epilogue (Ed. Note: The prologue was by David Garrick from whom Sheridan took over management of the Drury Lane Theater and the epilogue by playwright George. Colman and spoken by Lady Teazle). Gone too are the wigs usual to this play. The removal of these traditional elements plus the combination of stylized and naturalistic acting, point to the director's intent to highlight the continuity between twentieth-century audiences and Sheridan's characters. However, this leads to another omission, the name of the director. On the program which at the press preview I attended, (just 2 nights before the official opening) the name was manually blanked out. When you couple this with the fact that the press photos did show a bewigged cast it seems evident that this production is, at least momentarily, something of a riderless horse which may undergo further changes by the time those reading this review go to see it.

For anyone not familiar with this comedy of manners, the plot revolves around two brothers in love with the same girl and a young wife caught up in the false values of a scandal-mongering social set. The brother are Charles and Joseph Surface. Charles is heedless happy-go-lucky, but honest. Joseph is a sanctimonious hypocrite who wants to marry a young lady named Maria. It so happens that Maria loves Charles but can't marry anyone without permission of her guardian Sir Peter Teazle. Sir Peter's own domestic life is complicated by his young wife who has forsaken her country ways to fit into the gossip-mongering London social set of one Lady Sneerwell. To complicate matters, Charles and Joseph's rich uncle Oliver Surface has returned from India determined to test their character while still unrecognized. Young Lady Teazle is tempted to Joseph's room where Sir Peter's arrival forces her to hide behind a screen. In the end hypocrisy is made clear to all, Maria and Charles are happily united and Sir Peter forgives his Lady.

The Pearl's production works best in the second half when Sheridan's focus shifts towards a morality tale about hypocrisy. The focus on name-dropping gossips in the first half too obviously reflects the play's origin as a conflation of two separate sketches. As the plot line becomes noticeably clearer, we also see the playwright solve the eternal problem of having the bad guys turn out more attractive and colorful than the duller good guys by painting his characters in many shades. The hero, Charles, is drawn with many faults but with the winning merit of openness and generosity. Sir Peter and Lady Teazle's fights before making up are brightened with elegantly-worded insults, and the high-minded Sir Oliver is not above using ruses in order to see which of his nephews is more deserving of his largesse.

The Pearl is noted for exploring the classics with its core resident company, and The School for Scandal offers numerous roles rich with superb acting opportunities. Three Pearl regulars -- Sybil Lines, Jay Russell and Carol Schultz -- play the gossip-mongering Lady Sneerwell, Snake and Mrs. Candor with relish. Tricia Ann Kelly meets the challenge of making the essentially passive Maria interesting and Hope Chernov is engaging as Lady Teazle. John Wylie demonstrates his mastery of the comic repertory as a lively Sir Peter. Of the other company members Bradford Cover as the pivotal Joseph gives exaggerated facial expressions that are possibly funny but hardly believable. When Joseph begins to suffer reversals, the essential means for memorable characterization -- gesture, body movement and voice -- are missing altogether. Dane Knell's rather spiritless delivery fails to engage the audience's sympathy and Joel Rooks's Moses is also rather flat.

Interestingly, the two actors who make the most favorable impression are guests. As the wayward nephew Charles, Greg McFadden's refreshingly honest acting illuminates this production. Dan Daily is ideal as the gentleman go- between Rowley.

The most animated moment of the evening is the scene with Charles, Careless (Christopher Moore) and other drinking buddies as they party it up. Mr. McFadden's nimble embellishment on the exploits of his ancestors and Mr. Wylie's wry double-meaning commentary made their repartee in the portrait gallery scene another highlight. The major disappointment is the justly famous screen scene, which lacked suspense. It is unfortunate that this most serious moment in this comedy is so underplayed.

Compliments are in order for the choreographed sequences for the costumed servants as they efficiently but elegantly change the furniture between scenes on the unit set. However, while the overall impression of this production is favorable, the wiglessness of the women detracts. Also, many of the costumes could use a good ironing, and Maria's underskirt needs shortening. It is improbable for Lady Teazle's long skirt to be open almost to the waist. Running time is about two and one-half hours with one intermission.

The Metaphors of Richard Brinsley Sheridan
A Pearl Theater FeatureWith Review of David Hapgood's Biography of the Company
The Pearl's Own Web Site

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Director Unlisted at 12/27 performance
With Michael Birch, Matthew Bray, Hope Chernov, Bradford Cover, Dan Daily, Tricia Ann Kelly, Dane Knell, Lisa Kringel, Mark Lien, Sybil Lines, Greg McFadden, Christopher Moore, Joel Rooks, Jay Russell, Carol Schultz, Edward Seamon, John Wylie.
Set and costumes: Murell Horton
Lights: William H. Grant III
Sound: Robert Murphy
Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Marks Place (212) 598-9802
12/16/97-1/25/98;opened 12/29/97
reviewed David Lipfert, 12/30/97

© David Lipfert, December 30, 1997

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