The vast bucolic splendor of the Topanga Canyon-based Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum does not exude the proper aura for the drawing room gossip-and-slander shenanigans of scripter Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy-of-manners masterpiece, “The School for Scandal.” To her credit, helmer Ellen Geer manages to contain the environment while marshaling the varying talents of a large ensemble through Sheridan’s devastatingly witty sendup of late-18th-century London society.
Sheridan makes it easy to know the players, whose characters are reflected in their names. Acting as a bewigged precursor to National Enquirer-esque tabloid journalism, Lady Sneerwell (Susan Angelo) is the grand dame of smear, abetted by the gossip-mongering triumvirate of Sir Benjamin Backbite (Bill Durham), Crabtree (Jeff Bergquist) and Lady Candour (Katherine Griffith). Angelo, Durham and Bergquist quite capably bite into Sheridan’s ruinous repartee; Griffith’s Candour deliciously devours whole reputations with ravenous aplomb.
It is rumor and innuendo that drive the action, set in motion by Sneerwell and her reputation-assassin-for-hire, Widow Snake (Melora Marshall). Marshall projects Snake’s venomous agenda but quite often trips over a foreign accent that appears to meander over the entire European continent.
The plot revolves around the youthful Surface brothers, Charles (Jeff Wiesen) and Joseph (Mark Lewis), who have designs on the same woman, dowry-rich Maria (an emotionally undernourished Emily Bridges), the ward of wife-plagued Sir Peter Teazle (Franc Ross). Wiesen is properly roguish as the dissolute but honest Charles, who truly loves Maria but will not change his heedless ways simply to win Sir Peter’s favor.
Lewis shines as the superficially upstanding but thoroughly hypocritical Joseph, who conspires with Lady Sneerwell to undermine Charles’ reputation in Sir Peter’s eyes, leaving Joseph a clear path to Maria’s dowry and Sneerwell unobstructed access to Charles’ bed.
Swirling about the Surface brothers machinations are a plethora of tantalizing subplots, headlined by middle-aged Sir Peter’s tribulations with his child bride Lady Teazle (a sprightly Willow Geer), who has abandoned her former simple country ways and has wholeheartedly flung herself and Sir Peter’s money into Lady Sneerwell’s materialistic London social set. She also has allowed herself to wander into a dangerous liaison with the nefarious Joseph.
Complicating matters even further, Charles and Joseph’s rich uncle Sir Oliver Surface (twinkle-eyed Tim Halligan) has returned from India, incognito, determined to test their character to determine which is the more worthy to be his beneficiary.
Geer’s second-act staging is a delight as Sir Oliver teams with his old friend Sir Peter and loyal servant Rowley (Gerald Rivers) to put Charles and Joseph through a series of hilarious commedia-esque intrigues that eventually lead to a predictable feel-good ending that unites true lovers while undoing the scoundrels.