The School for Scandal hasn’t dated a jot: put Snake, Mrs. Candour, and Mrs. Sneerwell on Facebook and watch civilizations totter.
The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Directed by Paula Plum. Staged by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, MA through May 8.
By Bill Marx
Critic Kenneth Tynan rated Richard Brinsley Sheridan as a sophisticated playwright, placing him alongside Congreve, Shaw, and Wilde. By that he meant that his comedies were “genial without being hearty, witty without being smug, wise without being pompous, and sensual without being lewd.” Much of the vim and vigor of this sublime 18th-century satire springs from the balanced precision of its elegant language and arch characterizations. What’s called for is rhythmic spin and counter-spin (not all snide put-downs and epigrams should slice-and-dice alike) and detailed comic portraits of opportunists and schadenfreuders. Of course, the American comedy tradition (God love it) tends toward the vaudeville-esque and anarchistic, usually hitting hard and often on the “smug” and “lewd” side of the equation. So it is a challenge for a homegrown production to put Sheridan’s comedy about the perniciousness of gossip mongering across with the proper style — clever rather than farcical, deft rather than dizzy.
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production falls somewhere in between the poles — it is amiably amusing, but doesn’t quite catch sufficient classy fire. The danger in staging 18th-century comedy is that, in an effort to get all the dialogue out briskly, company members start to sound like hurdy-gurdies, grinding out punch lines at a rat-a-tat pace. There is some of that mechanical gear-shifting in the ASP staging, bursts of language that sound ejected rather than spoken. This level of knee-jerk sound and fury is compounded by Steven Barkheimer’s puzzling adaptation, which tosses in rock-and-roll trappings that really don’t add all that much. (Perhaps an anxious layer of nostalgia?) The truth is that the decadence of Joseph Surface (an enthusiastic Oman Robinson) and his fellow punkers comes off as fairly harmless. You would have be a pretty old fart to find any of the wiggling and posturing edgy in the slightest. Who would be taken in? In addition, the wild life here is a bit hard to understand — the Multicultural Arts Center is a wonderful space, but its acoustics can be somewhat problematic. What are Surface and his rapscallions going on about? My guess is that we are not missing all that much. Still, pleasing use is made of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” in a cast sing-along.
But really, who needs Joan Jett? In terms of relevance, The School for Scandal hasn’t dated a jot: put Snake, Mrs. Candour, and Mrs. Sneerwell on Facebook and watch civilizations totter. Be patient during the times the production chugs along like a toy engine struggling up a hill and there is plenty to smile about. Paula Plum directs with a sure enough hand and Jen Bennett’s costumes are eye-fillingly terrific — there are strutting peacocks aplenty here, with wigs the size of small apartments. Some of the performers get into the stylish smarm of Sherdian’s demolition derby. Sarah Newhouse’s Lady Sneerwell delivers her poisonous barbs with deadpan nicety; this is an ace assassin who appreciates her trade. Richard Snee makes for a hale and hearty Sir Oliver Surface, disguising himself in order to discover that one nephew, the supposedly respectable Joseph Surface (a proficient Michael Underhill) is a hypocrite, the other, despite grungy appearances, a decent sort. Snee’s Backbite is strangely lackluster; the addled “poetic” malice of this delightfully inane figure demands much more comic invention. Bobbie Steinbach is aptly acidic (if a bit tamped down) as Mrs. Candour, but her arthritic Moses the Jewish moneylender is a disappointment. The character has garnered charges of anti-Semitism from some critics — interpolating a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”) doesn’t really help matters. It kicks up more dust than it settles. Rebecca Schneebaum’s ethically upright Maria, Charles Surface’s intended main squeeze, is stalwart; Gabriel Graetz’s Sir Peter Teazle and Crabtree amble along at far too regular (and drowsy) a cadence.
Lydia Barnett-Mulligan’s energetic performances as Lady Teazle and Snake typify the strengths and weaknesses of the ASP production. Her Teazle is feisty but not to the point that her eventual acceptance of her husband’s lessons rings hollow. The actress has a flexible vocal register that darts from high to low with ease and good comic effect. But her Snake is a silly cartoon, the figure’s tongue poking in and out of her mouth for the sake of cheap laughs. The slithery, sleek, and pseudo-sinister character who lives for destruction (and payoffs) is missing. Keep in mind, Snake is not only a master at destroying reputations, a whiz at generating perfidy and calamity — he is also, lowest of the low, a “writer and a critic.” The latter suggests the high-grade venom that sits at the heart of The School for Scandal. O ASP, where is thy sting?
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.