Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School For Scandal, first performed in 1777, reveals that humans have changed little over the centuries, clothing and make-up aside. Sheridan's deliciously despicable characters would slip perfectly into the 21st-century world of gossip blogs, truthiness, and schadenfreude-as-blood sport.
The play's plot is thinner than thin, but the characters are full-throated, puffed-up, and blissfully cartoony. Take Mrs. Candour, about whom it is said, "...whenever I hear the current running against the characters of my friends, I never think them in such danger as when Candour undertakes their defense." As perfectly embodied by Dana Ivy, Mrs. Candour lives up to a description from the The Sweet Smell of Success: "a cookie full of arsenic." Not only could I see her holding court at 21 in that film, but I can also picture her keeping a Sunday brunch full of gay men in delighted hysterics for hours.
Although Ivy is not on stage for chunks of the show, unfortunately, there are many other characters and performers who also excel at what Charlotte in A Little Night Music calls "the thrust direct"--and the thrust indirect, and the thrust behind the back, and so on. While the other actors are not quite up there with Ivy's crisp delivery and impeccable timing, they are funny and sneering and charming and duplicitous--and fabulous company.
The true star is writing, which is as rich as the most decadent dessert. An example:
Why, one evening, at Mrs. Ponto’s assembly, the conversation happened to turn on the difficulty of breeding Nova Scotia sheep in this country. Says a young lady in company, “I have known instances of it—for Miss Letitia Piper, a first cousin of mine, had a Nova Scotia sheep that produced her twins.”—“What!” cried the Lady Dowager Dundizzy (who you know is as deaf as a post), “has Miss Piper had twins?” This mistake, as you may imagine, threw the whole company into a fit of laughter. However, ’twas the next morning everywhere reported, and in a few days believed by the whole town that Miss Letitia Piper had actually been brought to bed of a fine boy and a girl; and in less than a week there were some people who could name the father, and the farmhouse where the babies were put out to nurse.And here is an exchange in which Sir Peter is complaining about his new, much-younger wife to the steward Rowley.
Rowley. Come, come, Sir Peter, you love her, notwithstanding your tempers don’t exactly agree.
Sir Peter. But the fault is entirely hers, Master Rowley. I am myself, the sweetest tempered man alive, and hate a teasing temper; and so I tell her a hundred times a day.
Sir Peter. Aye; and what is very extraordinary, in all our disputes she is always in the wrong!(I imagine that the exchange above plays much funnier than it reads, particularly with the ever-reliable Mark Linn-Baker as Sir Peter.)
I could quote at length, but the play absolutely should be seen, and the Red Bull production, directed by Marc Vietor, is delightful (although I wish Vietor had skipped some of his more vulgar choices.)
The rest of the cast is Frances Barber and Henry Stram, with Helen Cespedes, Christian Conn, Christian DeMarais, Jacob Dresch, Ramsey Faragallah, Ryan Garbayo, Bradley Gibson, Nadine Malouf, Ben Mehl, and Derek Smith. The attractive set design is by Anna Louizos, the colorful costumes are by Andrea Lauer, and the lighting is by Russell H. Champa.
The School for Scandal only runs through May 8, but you can learn about future productions by the invaluable Red Bull Theater here.
(third row on the aisle; press ticket)