The School for Scandal is a kind of opera buffa version of Les Liaisons dangereuses—and in fact, only six years separate Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play (1776) from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel (1782). But where the comedy in Laclos is devastating, in Sheridan it is forgiving: the gossip-mongers who dominate his stage are toothless, equal-opportunity offenders, and most are probably aware that they, too, are the victims of rumor.
We open on Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber), whose name should give a good indication of Sheridan’s tone. She has her eye on the ne’er-do-well Charles Surface (Christian DeMarais), but he is quite attached to the moralistic Maria (Nadine Malouf). With the help of Snake (Jacob Dresch) and Charles’ brother, Joseph (Christian Conn), Sneerwell spreads scandal in the hope of separating the two. Joseph is a highly-respected man of sentiment and fully expects to receive the bulk of his uncle Sir Oliver’s (Henry Stram) inheritance, but his hypocrisy and his dalliance with his guardian Sir Peter’s (Mark Linn-Baker) wife, Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes), threatens to be exposed just as Sir Oliver disguises himself in order to investigate his two nephews.
The current revival of School for Scandal by the Red Bull Theater is delightful. Ben Mehl, playing a variety of servants, dons a new outlandish voice each time he appears onstage, while Mr. Dresch’s Snake, with a green wig and matching jacket, walks around like a windup doll in chalk-white makeup. Ms. Cespedes offers the play’s most subtle performance—as Lady Teazle was born humbly before becoming a “woman of fashion,” her posh RP occasionally betrays its West Country origins. But I had the most fun when Charles watches as his brother’s public image unravel. It’s not quite schadenfreude because it’s not that cruel; instead, he seems pleasantly diverted to see the phony exposed, his demeanor recalling Errol Morris’ cheerful recklessness.
The satire in School for Scandal is on about the same level as Oscar Wilde’s: Sheridan teases his characters but never condemns them. The success of this production lies in its ability to find amusement at every turn—in the gossip, in the gossipers, in their priggish victims, and in their total lack of self-awareness. This is a play that could easily sag with moral condemnation. Instead, by placing everyone and no one in its crosshairs, it finds the ideal manner in which to chide the members of the upper class for their promiscuous tongues and hollow sermonizing.