Acres of ribbon and glittering gold foil make the Shakespeare Theater’s The School for Scandal the most brightly wrapped of the Christmas comedies that local theaters are stacking under the tree this year. Extravagance is everywhere in this staging of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satirical look at rumormongers and hypocrisy—in costuming, gesture, hilarity, and, alas, in length. But if director Joe Dowling can’t resist giving audiences too much of a good thing, he at least makes sure that the thing he’s giving is top-notch. The Shakespeare Theater’s company hasn’t looked so limber and loose in quite a few seasons. The performers are clearly having a ball, and the fun proves infectious.
Not that the play’s darker undercurrents are being ignored. Gaze up near the proscenium arch before the lights dim, and you’ll find an inscription that seems to have been cribbed from the play, but wasn’t—the celebrated line about Washington that was penned by White House adviser Vince Foster in his suicide note: “Here, ruining people is considered sport.” And when gold-foiled walls roll back to reveal a stage-wide turntable whirling Lady Sneerwell’s twice-king-size bed into view, the queen of gossip looks up from her tabloids to a TV screen where WJLA-TV’s Kathleen Matthews is delivering the evening’s prologue. The point, lest anyone miss it, is that Sheridan’s satire applies as easily to our hypocritical age as to his.
For those who don’t care to have their noses rubbed in such parallels, however, there’s distraction aplenty—drag queens, boxers, a bit of slam dancing, feast-laden groaning boards, and velvets, silks, feathers, and lace enough to justify the construction of a new wing at the Textile Museum. There are also, of course, the evening’s plot convolutions involving Sir Oliver Surface (David Sabin), a long-absent aristocrat who returns incognito to discover which of his two nephews is more deserving. If he listened to gossip, Sir Oliver would have to choose Joseph (Derek Smith), a darling of society who is hailed as a “decent man of sentiment,” by a neighbor whose wife he is seducing and whose ward he plans to marry against her will. Joseph’s goodhearted brother Charles (Reese Madigan) is the dark horse (or black sheep or whatever) celebrated by gossips chiefly for being a wastrel. Not having much use for polite society, Charles isn’t unhappy to find it has none for him.
Sir Oliver disguises himself first as a moneylender and then as a poor relation to test the lads, and comes to what is clearly the right decision about them. But not before a gaggle of clownish rumormongers gets what’s coming to it, and the aging Lord Teazle (played as a bewigged Jack Benny by Ted van Griethuysen) and his young wife (a luminous Kathryn Meisle) discover how to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous gossip.
Sheridan’s characters live up to their names (Sneerwell’s bedroom salon is attended by Mrs. Candor, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Snake, Crabtree, and various others) with insults delivered with infinite malice. And costumer Patricia Zipprodt has augmented their barbs with some lovely character-assassination-by-costume. Helen Carey’s Mrs. Candor is so ablush—a symphony in pink, from her wig to her shoelaces—she need scarcely say she’s embarrassed by the indiscretions she reports with such relish. If the actress affects a speech pattern that makes her sound like a cross between Joanne Worley and Barbara Walters, count it as a comic bonus. Crabtree, played pompously by a fat-suited Floyd King, looks like a purple Easter egg with gout; Franchelle Stewart Dorn, her breasts powdered with gold dust, waltzes into her scenes as Lady Sneerwell like a slightly tipsy parade float; and the turquoise ribbons, eye shadow, and beauty marks that Peter Jacobson’s Sir Benjamin Backbite thinks the ladies will find irresistible makes him a visual joke before he ever opens his mouth.
If Smith’s comically smarmy Joseph Surface is attired more quietly, that doesn’t make him appear less cartoonish. Giving the most frenetically animated performance of an extremely physical evening, he enters the first scene in a rush and remains almost constantly atwitter thereafter. At first, he’s merely kicking up a heel when something surprises him, but by the play’s famed “screen scene”—when he has an unlaced Lady Teazle hidden behind blinds in his handcuff-stocked dungeon, her jealous husband secreted in a closet, and his freethinking brother spilling secrets wildly—every nerve in Smith’s body is visibly twitching. His mouth assumes a dozen smiles in quick succession, not one of them credibly depicting happiness. His eyebrows take leave of their moorings and float freely around his forehead, settling in odd spots briefly only to reassume their journey as he struggles madly to come up with excuses for his behavior. He leaps tables, hurls himself through doorways, and at one particularly uproarious point, puddles on the floor in panic.
As his callow younger brother, Madigan manages to make appealing many of the same movements while strutting and posing like a time-displaced punk rocker. One of the director’s less felicitous notions is the physicalizing of this particular conceit. Charles’ lair and companions appear to have been conceived with MTV in mind, but flashing disco lights, drag queens, half-naked pugilists, and amplified guitar riffs aren’t enough to turn the Lansburgh’s stage into more than a half-baked imitation of a Madonna video. A quick burst of such imagery would probably get by, but dragging the sequence out for 15 minutes is ill-advised.
Especially in a show that already feels attenuated. In 1777, when Sheridan penned the play, five-hour theatrical evenings were the norm in London, which meant this comparatively brief comedy would have been padded with pantomimes and recitals. Today’s audiences get antsy much more quickly, and while Scandal currently clocks in at about three hours (having reportedly lost 30 minutes during previews), no one would complain if another 20 minutes disappeared.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to stay with Dowling’s staging, from period-evoking detail (food casually dropped on floors by an aristocracy with as-yet-undeveloped notions of hygiene) to the sudden opening up of Frank Hallinan-Flood’s setting at an emotionally crucial moment, to the occasional out-of-the-blue anachronism that hits your funny bone with the force of a sledgehammer. One such is a Joseph-Surface-as-Faye-Dunaway-as-Joan-Crawford moment I wouldn’t have missed for the world. You probably shouldn’t, either.