By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Craig Schwartz
"People will talk," observes Mrs. Candor in The School for Scandal, a comment that states both the obvious and sublime. For there is talk and there is talk— conversation and ideas on the one hand, gossip and scandal on the other. Like many satirists, the Restoration playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan knew that people of all classes love to hear and circulate rumors, yet propriety and self-image make them publicly denounce such activity. But Sheridan understood something more — theater audiences love to see such gossips ensnared in their own self-delusions. His 1777 comedy, which might well have been titled Georgian Confidential, masterfully captures the timeless endeavor of balancing slander and self-deception. Now running at the Mark Taper Forum, director Brian Bedford’s production shows why the play will be with us as long as there is scandal.
At the center of a black widow’s web of intrigue sits Lady Sneerwell (Carolyn Seymour), a dart-tongued manipulator who schemes to wreck the romance between young Maria (Devon Sorvari) and Charles Surface (Kevin O’Donnell). Her accomplices are Charles’ brother, Joseph (Don Reilly), and a forger of love letters named Snake (Scott Parkinson). While Joseph is motivated by his own desire for Maria, Lady S. is animated by the sheer malevolent joy of slander — lunch with her is a tea-and-antipathy affair in which only present company is excluded from her backstabbing disdain. She and Joseph have no shortage of backs to work with: Charles is a pirate-shirted carouser without a sixpence to his name; Maria’s guardians, Peter and Lady Teazle (Bedford and Kate Fry), look down upon Charles as a wastrel and favor Joseph — who, in fact, is a selfish layabout.
The Teazles have their own problems: Sir Peter is an elderly if sincere squire, while m’lady is a young country coquette bedazzled by London’s shops — the kind of free-spending wife for whom science would later invent the charge card. There are other characters: Some help roll the plot forward, some do nothing but model outlandish outfits and utter the play’s most outrageous lines — made all the funnier because their speakers mistakenly believe themselves to be wits. I’m referring, of course, to Sir Benjamin Backbite (Parkinson) and his uncle, Crabtree (Edward Hibbert), the mincing, painfully effete fops who make The School for Scandalmemorable not for its great epigrams but for the characters who deliver what they believe are great epigrams.
Joseph’s reputation, however, is not far behind Backbite’s and in the play is celebrated for his "sentiments" — insincere, proto-Wildean aphorisms that don’t exactly click. In fact, it is Scandal’s despicably honest, dully upright citizens who have some of the best lines. When Mrs. Candor (Marianne Muellerliele) rushes to "defend" a cousin from the lashings of Backbite and Crabtree with a gush of her customary — and deadly — faint praise, Sir Peter cuts her off: "When I tell you, Mrs. Candor, that the lady they are abusing is a particular friend of mine, I hope you’ll not take her part." Likewise, it is the virtuous Maria who claims that "Wit loses its respect with me when I see it in company with malice."
The play burns along like a gunpowder trail leading to a keg (in this case, the famous "screen scene" with the Teazles and Joseph), showering sparks, along the way, upon hypocrites, blowhards and the pompous. While honesty is rewarded and knaves and rakes spanked by play’s end, Scandal remains a ceremony of vain manners and affectation rather than a lesson in choosing right from wrong — or even of intricate plotting. Sheridan’s witty repartee and nearly amoral storyline helped turn the British theater into one big drawing room and prepared the ground for an ongoing critique of superficiality by superficial plays, from The Importance of Being Ernestto What the Butler Saw— morally hollow comedies whose puns and double entendres merrily attacked the social assumptions of their day.
Bedford’s production, though encouraging its ensemble to ham things up a bit, is a very serviceable operation: Karl Fredrik Lundeberg’s Masterpiece Theatre score, to say nothing of Catherine Zuber’s lavish costumes and Gerald Altenburg’s towering hair and wig designs, lead us straight to the perfumed dÃ©colletage of genteel, late-18th-century London. Ann Curtis’ airy set and scenic design, adapted by Edward E. Haynes Jr., is surprisingly roomy for its mannered period, leaving the space to be cluttered less by upholstered furniture than the overstuffed egos of the story’s characters. Parkinson and Hibbert’s Backbite and Crabtree are vertiginously precious and, had their characters any more stage time, would have chewed the scenery down to the Taper’s subflooring. Their moment of "truth" comes when they try to outdo each other in embellishing details of a scandalous scene at which neither was present. Giving them a run for their money is Muellerliele as the irrepressibly vile Mrs. Candor, whose every compliment coats a poison pill.
Bedford, fortunately, balances their energy with Seymour’s cool, steely performance as Lady Sneerwell, and his own quietly befuddled turn as Sir Peter. Likewise, Reilly’s Joseph is the epitome of moneyed indolence and appropriately keeps his preening ambitions close to the vest instead of wearing them on his sleeve. And, in a show whose secondary figures represent a bestiary of "types," Parkinson’s Snake is almost affectionately feral without being over the top.