From the moment we meet scheming Lady Sneerwell (Carolyn Seymour) and hear her announce, "I have since known no pleasure equal to reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation," the Mark Taper production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal" captures and preserves the author's woundingly witty tone. First presented in 1777, the show's indictment of vicious, poisonously gleeful gossip is remarkably contemporary. Director Brian Bedford (who also plays Sir Peter Teazle) has assembled a group of peerless farceurs who understand and milk every laugh from the material.

From the moment we meet scheming Lady Sneerwell (Carolyn Seymour) and hear her announce, “I have since known no pleasure equal to reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation,” the Mark Taper production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” captures and preserves the author’s woundingly witty tone. First presented in 1777, the show’s indictment of vicious, poisonously gleeful gossip is remarkably contemporary. Director Brian Bedford (who also plays Sir Peter Teazle) has assembled a group of peerless farceurs who understand and milk every laugh from the material.

Seymour’s Lady Sneerwell is shown conspiring with a Uriah Heep-style forger, Snake (Scott Parkinson), to wreck the romance between rebelliously extravagant Charles Surface (Kevin O’Donnell) and the lovely Maria (Devon Sorvari). Happily participating in Sneerwell’s nefarious plan is Joseph Surface (Don Reilly), Charles’ brother, who wants Maria — and her large fortune — for himself.

The production acquires an even sharper edge when Sir Peter Teazle (Bedford), Maria’s 60-year-old guardian, takes the stage and engages in battle with his much younger, social-climbing wife, Lady Teazle (Kate Fry). Proclaiming himself “the miserablest dog … that ever committed wedlock,” he is driven wild by suspicions that his wife is having an affair with the dissolute Charles.

Complicated as it is, the plot strands neatly intertwine, as Sir Peter opposes Maria’s marriage to Charles and favors Joseph, considering him to be the more moral and honorable of the two brothers. When Sir Oliver Surface (an excellent John Cunningham), uncle to both, decides to test the character of his nephews, Joseph is revealed to be a blackguard and Charles a man of loyalty and substance.

Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’s classical transition music has an ideal baroque stateliness, and Catherine Zuber’s marvelously lush costumes (witness Joseph’s red leather frock coat and Benjamin Backbite’s salmon-pink suit) are a show-stopping element in themselves.

The sets — designed by Ann Curtis and adapted by Edward E. Haynes Jr. — also are inspired, providing a set that seamlessly represents several households and contributes an elegantly formal London atmosphere that heightens the effectiveness of the situations.

Against these believable backdrops, Bedford — recipient of six actor Tony nominations and winner for Moliere’s “The School for Wives” — establishes himself as the heart of the piece. His comic flair is matchless when he literally snarls at Lady Teazle “my angel” and “my life,” or balks when his spouse tells him, “I ought to have my own way in everything.” But he also probes deeply the psyche of a man who suffers insecurities about his age and feels, beneath prideful bluster, an aching love for the woman who patronizes him. No matter how many comedic lines he tosses off, Bedford keeps the soul of Sir Peter in clear view.

On a broader level, Reilly is brilliant as Joseph. Hypocritical and openly calculating by turns, he has his finest moments in act two, coaxing Lady Teazle to hide behind a screen while confronting her jealous husband and smearing his innocent brother. Reilly (who co-starred felicitously with Bedford in a former Taper vehicle, “The Moliere Comedies”) is so slick and smarmy that it’s supremely satisfying to see him exposed and discarded by his victims.

Fry is a superlative Lady Teazle, stubborn and superficial, yet magnetic and solidly credible when she comes to recognize her husband’s true worth. Sorvari performs with dignified calm and gentleness as Maria, compensating with sincerity for the fact that her role is the only one entirely lacking in humor.

Mrs. Candour (Marianne Muellerleile) furnishes the most fully developed personification of gossip in the story, a grinning gorgon who oozes duplicity and declares, “I cannot bear to hear people attacked behind their backs,” pretends to defend them and delights in destroying their reputations. Muellerleile comes on like a hurricane, and her lip-smacking ecstasy while spreading lies is hilarious and horrifying.

She has an especially triumphant scene with Benjamin Backbite (a riotously prissy, petulant Parkinson, who also scores as the treacherous Snake), and flamboyant, red-wigged Crabtree (Edward Hibbert), in which all three play a game of can-you-top-this and invent disastrous details of a scandal that bears no relationship to the actual event.

School for Scandal

Mark Taper Forum; 720 seats; $52 top

Production

A Center Theater Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Brian Bedford.

Creative

Sets, Ann Curtis, Edward E. Haynes Jr.; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Jon Gottlieb; original music, Karl Fredrik Lundeberg; production stage manager, Mary K. Klinger. Opened, reviewed Dec. 8, 2004; runs through Jan. 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Lady Sneerwell - Carolyn Seymour Snake, Sir Benjamin Backbite - Scott Parkinson Lady Sneerwell's Maid, Charles' Friend - Julia Coffey Joseph Surface - Don Reilly Maria - Devon Sorvari Mrs. Candour - Marianne Muellerleile Crabtree - Edward Hibbert Sir Peter Teazle - Brian Bedford Rowley - Nick Ullett Sir Toby Bumper, Joseph's Servant - Eric Strickland Careless, Teazle - Timothy Edward Kane Lady Teazle - Kate Fry Lady Teazle's Handmaid - Jenna Cole Teazle Maid, Charles' Friend - Sharon Sachs Sir Oliver Surface - John Cunningham Moseley - Ted Barton Charles Surface - Kevin O'Donnell Trip - J. Kenneth Campbell
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