- by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
- Directed by Richard Clifford
- Produced by Folger Theatre
- Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
The Folger’s done it again: taken a classic from an earlier era and turned it into a contemporary cautionary tale of a situation so in-the-moment as to have been heralded, just four days into its run, by a Washington Post Style article dissecting the very phenomenon it portrays. (For those who missed it: Rumor Has It reminds us that the so-called civilized world has learned not to behave better, but rather, to do it better.) What passed for outrageous behavior then would raise nary an eyebrow now; gossip has become a profitable industry, where the unsavory or titillating (take your pick) personal foibles of public figures become grist for the daily mill spread farther, wider and more devastatingly than Sheridan’s wildest dreams could have conceived, thanks to the one place we have progressed: technology.
That being said, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal remains one of the greatest and most enduring examples of the 18th century’s “comedy of manners” tradition. Aided and abetted by a cast that enthusiastically chews but never gnaws the scenery (and lavishly designed it is, by award-winning set designer Tony Cisek, who has taken a page from Whistler’s Peacock Room, currently on display at the Freer), British director Richard Clifford, returning for his eighth Folger venture brings the play two centuries forward, to the time of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. He then splits the difference, in a twist that harks back to the Restoration comedy of a century before Sheridan while recalling Wilde’s self-described “Socratic” sexuality, by casting in the role of the scheming Lady Sneerwell a man (Tom Story), who does not lack for enthusiasm, but comes off as something of a drag queen, rather than a fully realized character.
This intricate temporal play mostly works, but sometimes the stitches show. Adding to this is the challenge inherent in comedies of manners: sometimes it’s hard to tell the players – or their plays – without a scorecard. The web that Lady Sneerwell weaves has as its object a rather ambitious, and what’s perhaps more to the point, iniquitous target: Charles Surface (Clinton Brandhagen), who is in love with Maria, the ward of the wealthy Sir Peter Teazle (the inimitable David Sabin). To further her aim she enlists the aid of Charles’s duplicitous brother Joseph (Cody Nickell), who himself has eyes on Maria’s money and has bamboozled Sir Peter, and indeed everyone, into believing he is the salt of the earth, in contrast to his more freewheeling (and free-spending: paying debts, the latter earnestly observes, will only encourage them) brother. Meanwhile, Lady Teazle (Kate Eastwood Norris, an absolute delight in the role) becomes the object of gossip linking her with Charles, when in actuality she’s been carrying on with Joseph – not out of any real affection for him, but because she doesn’t want to be seen by her social cohort as lacking in either attractiveness or sophistication.
All of this sets the stage for the arrival of Sir Oliver Surface (Hugh Nees), the brothers’ uncle, who is given such conflicting reports of his nephews’ behavior and character, he decides to disguise himself as a money lender so as to better assess their worthiness as heirs to his fortune.
There are some memorable moments. As the play opens, Lady Sneerwell bemoans the suffering that others’ talebearing has caused her, and vows never to inflict such injury. At this, her addlepated partner-in-lies, Mrs. Candour (a comically daft Catherine Flye) simultaneously decries gossip-mongering while engaging in it, her industry apparently undeterred by a Baba Wawa-like speech impediment. As Sir Peter, Sabin combines world-weary resignation with an almost vaudevillian gift for slapstick humor. “When an older man marries a young woman, he deserves… well, the crime carries the punishment within it,” he observes with a regretful hint of evidently hard-earned wisdom. He demands authority over his spendthrift young wife, who replies with unimpeachable logic, in a line that has lost nothing in either potency or currency, that if he wanted authority over her, he should have adopted her, not married her.
Plagued beyond endurance, Sir Peter erupts in a fit of huffing, puffing, sputtering, spluttering rage, spraying the utterly unfazed and unrepentant Lady Teazle (you can almost hear her say whatever) with a shower of indignant spittle. Unrefined, perhaps, but refreshingly honest: their exchange making the schemes and superficiality of their society stand out in even sharper relief – not to mention ours.
- Running Time: 2:45 including a 15-minute intermission
- When: May 7 – June 15, Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30, Friday – Saturday at 8:00, Saturday – Sunday at 2:00. Free docent-led exhibition tours at 6:30 p.m. before the Wednesday-night performances.
- Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003
- Tickets: $34 – $55. Visit the website or call the Folger Theatre box office at 202-544-7077