Gerald Freedman’s Broadway-bound production of Sheridan’s classic expose of the evils of gossip is an attractive, carefully crafted and thoroughly competent piece of classical theater. But this production seems so utterly determined to demonstrate its earnest and well-trained actors’ sophisticated capabilities with 18th century style that it ultimately becomes strangled by its own period pomposity. Unless the tense actors can loosen up and start having a little more fun with a play that is supposed to be a riotous and timeless comedy, there will be limited appeal here for the general Gotham audience.
A post-Restoration romp imbued with a healthy dose of sentimental moralism, Sheridan’s “laughing comedy” is difficult to perform for a modern audience — not least because of the archaic language and the play’s complex fusion of broad and subtle comic styles. Like Oscar Wilde a century later, Sheridan was out to bash high-society priggishness and hypocrisy. But he was also interested in giving his merchant-class audience a good time by allowing them to laugh at a duped old man with a sexy young wife, and enjoy the antics of a rakish young whippersnapper who will sell the family portraits just to pay his debts.
Freedman’s actors (many are members of the Acting Company) exhibit perfect period posture and seem to have developed their characters’ inner lives so completely that at times it feels like one is watching Chekhov — when the scandal queen Lady Sneerwell (Mary Lou Rosato) says in passing that she was herself wounded by gossip as a younger woman, we certainly feel her pain. This psychological realism works well up to a point, because it makes sense of why this nasty crowd displays such mutual venom. And Freedman provides plenty of elegant stage pictures and sophisticated transitions.
But this play also contains scenes that cry out for some physical shtick, a few double-takes to the audience, and a touch of that vaudevillian sensibility so much a feature of popular and irreverent British pantomime down the years — Sheridan’s work may be historically important, but that doesn’t mean we have to be visiting a museum in which we can’t touch the exhibits.
This “School for Scandal,” a co-production of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater, turns its back when faced with the possibility of broad comedy, even though the remarkably self-effacing Randall is on hand as the dotty Sir Peter Teazle, unhappy caretaker of a rough-and-ready spouse from the country.
Take the famous scene when Teazle catches his wife hidden behind the screen in the house of Joseph (Simon Jones), the play’s leading hypocrite. When the hapless Lady Teazle (Kate Forbes, sans the customary bumpkin accent) is suddenly revealed, we might expect to be giggling at the facial contortions of her cuckolded husband. Not so here — Freedman has blocked Randall so he faces upstage at that famous moment, meaning that (at least from my seat toward the side), we are left staring at the back of the show’s star — not a whole lot of fun.
There are some amusing bits. Jones has some delicious moments of irreverence, and on the all-too-rare occasions when Randall actually communes with an audience starving for interaction, his performance has great charm. There are also some well-delivered one-liners and appropriate exuberance from Tom Hewitt’s Charles. But there are otherwise precious few of those lovely character ticks and traits that typically enliven this kind of thing, and come close to evoking the kind of eccentric fun Sheridan originally intended.
The work of the designers falls into this same trap — Douglas Schmidt’s single setting is elegant and true to its period, but it does not enhance comic possibilities. The play’s famous portrait auction — often a humorous high point — is here physically confined to our imagination and thus diminished. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are expensive, accurate and beautiful. But they’re also a little stiff.
One can certainly appreciate Freedman’s apparent determination to make no compromises in his ensemble-driven art for the sake of pandering to a commercial audience, and Randall was obviously determined not to dominate with a star turn. But the Broadway (or Cleveland) crowd isn’t so different from the people for whom Sheridan wrote 200 years ago — and he knew how to make his point while providing the punters with plenty of laughs.