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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The School for Scandal
By David Avery
Sheridan's plot is by-the-numbers farce: two brothers (Charles and Joseph Surface) are vying for the attentions of one Maria, ward of Sir Peter Teazle. Charles is a spendthrift and wastrel, while Joseph appears to be the model of upright virtue. Sir Peter prefers to match Maria with Joseph, while Maria pines for Charles. Joseph is not what he appears, however, and merely wants Maria for her large inheritance. He and Lady Sneerwell (a notorious gossip, who runs the titular School for Scandal) are plotting to discredit Charles in Sir Peter's eyes. Lady Sneerwell has designs on Charles herself, and has employed Snake to forge various documents to the effect that she and Charles are involved so as to discredit him with Sir Peter.
Meanwhile, Sir Peter is having his own problems with his new, much younger wife Lady Teazle. Though he loves her dearly, she has come under the influence of the School for Scandal, spends his money unwisely, and he suspects she may be having an affair with Charles. In reality, Lady Teazle is just beginning to be convinced that Charles' brother Joseph might be someone she should get to know better.
To add to matters, the long absent uncle of Joseph and Charles (Sir Oliver) has just arrived in London to decide which of his nephews should be named his heir. Sir Oliver and Sir Peter are old friends, and together they hatch a plot to discover the brothers' true natures.
With names such as Lady Candour, Lady Sneerwell, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and Snake, the audience is not in for a great deal of character development; what you see is what you get from the opening lines to the denouement. It is a comedy of manners, after all, and the movement of the plot is mostly a contrivance to deliver comeuppance to the nastier characters. Everyone is played to type, which makes the characters less engaging -- it's much easier to laugh at archetypes than to care about them. But the lines are delivered surely and quickly by the cast, who appear to be having a grand time overdramatizing (as called for by the writing and the subject matter).
The more grandiloquent characters, Sir Backbite (Scott Parkinson) and Crabtree (Edward Hibbert), are intentionally over-the-top -- but as the two gadflies strive to out-rumor each other over events that neither character know anything about, they provide the most amusement. Lady Candour (Marianne Muellerleille) is equally funny, though less stridently si , as the gossip monger who cannot give a compliment to save her life.
These characters are nicely balanced by the more staid Sir Peter (Brian Bedford) and Sir Oliver (John Cunningham). Sir Peter's obvious befuddlement over his new wife and the vagaries of her mood is nicely counterpointed by the arrival of good friend Sir Oliver -- affecting the manner of the world traveler who has seen most of what life can dish out. The lines in the play that hit home are mostly given to the heroes, and almost all of the attempted sentiments of the villains are shown to be hollow at best, so as to remind us where our loyalties should lie. In reality, all the characters are schemers, and all suffer from a near fatal dose of vanity (excepting the wholesome Maria, one of the only characters not provided with a telling last name).
The point of the whole matter is simple enough: idle gossip is only damaging if one lets it be. As loyal servant Roley observes when Sir Peter is reluctant to forgive his young bride out of fear of mockery, "Let them laugh, and retort their malice only by showing them you are happy in spite of it." Yet here is the audience, waiting in rapt attention for the next bit of chicanery. The play lets the audience feel superior to the salacious School for Scandal, while at the same time allowing us the opportunity of voyeurism. We are being subtly implicated along with the play's immoral characters.
The elaborate costumes by Catherine Zuber are period specific and appropriately bombastic when called for. This contrasts nicely with the understated and simple set adaptation by Edward E. Haynes, Jr. Scene changes are kept to a minimum and done quickly, which works well with the plot pace. Best not to let the audience ponder it to long in the dark.
One brief note: contrary to today's more common practice of presenting older works without PC-ification, this production has sanitized most of what could be deemed as anti-Semitic content by changing negative references "Jews" and "Jewry" to "moneylenders"" (one reference to a Shylock survives). I suppose in the context of a manners comedy this isn't all that surprising. It should be noted, however, that the prevailing sentiments of the Sheridan's times are reflected in the original text.
Editor's Note: Another Sheridan play is currently at New York's Lincoln Center. To read the review go here.
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