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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 Scandal memorable 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 Ernest to 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 décolletage 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.

The production’s script seems a little streamlined, though some
of the trimming may have been done as much for political correctness as for
conversational velocity. For, while Crabtree’s swipe at Charles’ “synagogue”
friends provoked a ripple of gasps among the Taper audience, its preceding,
similarly flavored lines have been cut. For that matter, the moneylender Moses
has been Anglicized to Moseley (Ted Barton). But why? There has been, I thought,
a recent trend toward shaking off all attempts at airbrushing out the social
prejudices of our literary ancestors. This is a wise and overdue development
— show Shylock as Shakespeare envisioned him, not as we would wish the Bard
to have portrayed him. Audiences will not suddenly start lynching Jews, nor
will they go out and burn Shakespeare’s plays. But then, I suppose we live in
the kind of insulated, chokingly polite society that is every bit as hypocritical
as was Sir Backbite’s.

With or without Sheridan’s own prejudices, Bedford’s Scandal,
which was first produced at Canada’s 1999 Stratford Festival, will still resonate
with modern audiences, even if it lacks the spark and spunk of A Noise Within’s
1950s retrofit of 10 years ago, a production that presented a sort of L ’Age
Dior of fashion and sensual surfaces. The plain fact is that today Americans
eat and breathe scandal, as surely as if we’d grown up next to Lady Sneerwell’s
writing desk. The transformation of old scandal sheets like The National
Enquirer
into semi-respectable news sources, the celebrity-obsessed TV programs
that pass for news, and the public mania to see movie stars and politicians
trip on their on their own shoelaces have made scandal an industry more than
a pastime.

If The School for Scandal was a mirror for Sheridan’s
debauched age, today it might serve as a practical manual in character assassination.
Only two generations ago we elected a president admired for his wartime heroics
on a PT boat; this year another candidate’s similar exploit was effectively
used to trash him. Perhaps Sheridan’s play should force us to question our neurotic
desire to see others fail, as well as our willingness to grow fat on rumor and
innuendo. It’s one thing that people will talk, it’s more alarming that they’ll
listen.

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL | By RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN
At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through January 23 |
(213) 628-2772