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Review: Everything old is new again; ‘School for Scandal’ lands a modern punch

Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, April 25, 2016

Lies, scandal, manipulation, hypocrisy, ambition. No, I’m not talking about the presidential race, or the (finally!) new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the spinning-like-a-top revival of Richard Sheridan’s 1777 comedy, The School for Scandal from the Red Bull Theatre Company.

No, it’s not named after the energy drink (though judging by this production, the members of the company have all chugged a good deal of it). It’s named for a London theater of Shakespeare’s time, a competitor to the Globe. The modern company’s mission is to present plays with “heightened language, archetypal characters, timeless themes and great classic stories that resonate in our present day.”

And resonate is what this production certainly does. The plot is too complicated to unravel here, yet remarkably there’s not one moment of confusion. The titular “school” is a salon run by the delightfully evil Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber), who lives for the pleasure of “reducing others to the injured level of my own reputation.” Misery loves company is their motto. She is aided by the aptly named Mr. Snake, whose high-flying green-hued hair matches his velvet waistcoat (costume design by Andrea Lauer gets laughs before the characters open their mouths). Assisting them both is the marvelous Mrs. Candour (Dana Ivey), a gossipmonger par excellence, who protests how much she despises those who carry tales as she strews fallen reputations around her feet like rose petals.

The trio are spinning their artful webs around a cast of colorful and charmingly (for the most part) awful characters, from the seemingly respectable but really treacherous Joseph Surface (getting the gist of these names yet?) and his seemingly dissolute but really good-hearted brother Charles, to the decent but foolish Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker), an older man who has taken a younger wife (Helen Cespedes) who tortures his days and his reputation (and who, in case we forget she comes from the countryside, is dressed like a tarted-up Little Bo Peep).

There’s a “society poet” named Sir Benjamin Backbite, a rich uncle who arrives from the East, a wealthy heiress, and a family confidant, Master Ranji, who unravels the lies and ushers us all to a highly satisfying conclusion. And we must not overlook the protean Ben Mehl, who plays four different servants and steals the scene as every single one.

The scenery whirls and bends but never disrupts, smart parts of a highly adaptable set by Anna Louizos. Walls spin and fold, furniture slides and glides, and all the action and brilliant language charms and enlightens. Nearly 250 years have gone by…and not a whole lot about human nature, it turns out, has changed. There’s still a lot of duplicity and self-delusion in our world…and in the case of this wonderful evening of theater, I say, “thank goodness.”

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The School for Scandal runs through May 8 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. Runningtime: 2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission.

 


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