A great deal of grist for the gossip mill is obtained from the events of Lady Sneerwell’s next-door neighbors, the 60-year-old Sir Peter Teazle and Lady Teazle, his young wife from the country who never knew luxury until her marriage. ‘Tis now six months since Lady Teazle made him the happiest of men – and he has “been the most miserable dog ever since” due her extravagances and to her quarreling with him. Formerly guardian to the Surface Brothers on the death of their father, Sir Peter fears that Lady Teazle is having an affair with Charles (which has been circulated untruthfully by Snake), and Sir Peter wishes his ward, Maria, to marry Joseph. However, Maria is having none of the moralizing Joseph and is very tender towards the profligate but generous Charles. More troubling is the fact that Lady Teazle has joined Lady Sneerwell’s “School for Scandal” though she claims to only be censorious to their friends.
The actual plot is propelled by the return of Sir Oliver Surface after 16 years away in the East Indies. As he confides to his old friend Sir Peter, he hopes to test both of his nephews, not only his only heirs but the recipients of large previous settlements. Not trusting Joseph’s reputation as a “youthful miracle of prudence, good sense and benevolence” as too good to be true, he plans on visiting him as a distant relative, “Mr. Stanley,” in great financial distress. Not believing that Charles is as bad as the reports about him, he plans to come to him as “Mr. Premium, a broker,” with an offer to obtain money to aid in his debts. The most famous scenes in the play are the ones in which Charles attempts to sell Premium the family portraits to the growing horror of disguised uncle, and the screen scene in which Joseph is taken unawares in private conversation with Lady Teazle who needs a place to hide when first Mr. Stanley, and then Sir Peter and Charles make their unexpected visits and begin looking around his room.
Red Bull Theater which has specialized in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies has moved on to the 18th century with Marc Vietor’s exquisite and stylish revival of The School for Scandal, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s famous but rarely revived classic comedy of manners. With impeccable casting and a pitch-perfect production team, this School is as witty, delightful and accessible as one could wish. The 18th century look of the play is both historic and satiric. Anna Louizos’ clever settings transform one into the other with the turn of a wall or a door and a rearrangement of the furniture, highlighted by Russell H. Champa’s lighting. Her witty use of props (a chamber pot, a trunk, empty picture frames) adds to the fun.
The costumes by Andrea Lauer are period for the main characters and satiric for the fops and dandies. Charles G. LaPointe’s wig and hair design runs the gamut from elaborate tresses for the ladies to Snake’s green hair, symbolic of his poisoned pen. The crystal clear diction is partly the work of Deborah Hecht on voice and dialect. The original music and sound design by Greg Pliska always begins the 18th century with a harpsichord and then segues into more contemporary melodies. Could there be a comment here that we are not free of malicious gossip or vindictive scandal even today?
The accomplished cast includes several previous Red Bull players as well as many first-time additions. British actress Frances Barber, a longtime member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre of Great Britain, and the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is delicious as the revengeful and mischievous Lady Sneerwell whose coterie “murder(s) characters to kill time.” Dana Ivey, who last appeared on Broadway as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, another classic comedy of manners, is an elegant gossiper as Mrs. Candour who doesn’t believe you can “prevent people from talking.” In a double role, Derek Smith is juicily rancorous as Crabtree and extremely arch as Mr. Midas, a knowing moneylender. Jacob Dresch’s Snake lives up to his name as a viperous sycophant who lives by his wits.
The Surface Brothers are a study in opposites. Christian Conn’s Joseph is all bland unctuousness while Christian DeMarais as his brother Charles is an expansive hedonistic reveler. As their wise and level-headed uncle Sir Oliver, Henry Stram demonstrates a tremendous range returning as Mr. Premium, Mr. Stanley and as himself. Mark Linn-Baker’s Sir Peter, their former guardian, is a comic creation as the crotchety elderly husband of a young wife, while Helen Cespedes as a pert Lady Teazle is calmly provoking, but comes to regret the error of her ways.
Beautiful Nadine Malouf as the heiress Maria seems to be the only character that is expected to play it straight as the one woman who rejects gossip and innuendo. Ramsey Faragallah, as Ranji, a family confidant to both Sir Peter and Sir Oliver, is a fount of sophistication. Playing servants to four separate masters, Ben Mehl is unrecognizable in each of his additional appearances, but is able to silently comment on the goings on as each.
Though the play dates from 1777, in Mark Vietor’s production of The School for Scandal the wit sparkles like rare jewels and the comeuppance of the malicious characters is greeted with roars of approval. Stylish and elegant, Red Bull Theater’s revival of this 18th century classic is a triumph for all concerned and will leave you begging for more when the final curtain descends.
The School for Scandal (through May 8, 2016)
Red Bull Theater
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, West Village, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.redbulltheater.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission