December 13, 2004
In a spirit of full disclosure worthy of Mrs. Candour, one of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan's more indelible comic creations, I feel duty-bound to offer these disclaimers: I know of at least one discerning acquaintance who did not return after the intermission of the Taper's new production of Sheridan's The School for Scandal, and my theatergoing companion later described her state throughout much of the play as "antsy."
A further confession: I myself have been known to doze and nod through productions of this 18th century classic about intriguing gossip-mongers in London high society.
So why did I--and much of the audience around me--have such a roaring good time watching the Taper production which continues through Jan. 23?
The simple two-word answer would have to be Brian Bedford, whose lead turn as Sir Peter Teazle, the newly married older gentleman who might as well have a sign stuck to his back that reads "Cuckold Me," buoys the proceedings with surprising nuance and heart. As the show's director, Bedford also deserves credit for keeping the play buzzing along from plot to counterplot without ever feeling rushed, a trick abetted immeasurably by his surgical streamlining of the text.
In short, though the Los Angeles area boasts a few marvelous classical troupes (Glendale's A Noise Within, North Hollywood's Antaeus Company), we seldom witness such crowd-pleasing showmanship applied to an antique text on the Taper scale. Despite all the wigs, heels and bustles, this production feels positively populist.
Those extravagant costumes, by the way, are a show unto themselves. Costumer Catherine Zuber has clearly had as much fun as is legal in her profession, trotting out a veritable wardrobe full of buckled shoes, brocaded robes, fluffy ruffles, even a fur cuff with a tassel for the particular dandy Crabtree (Edward Hibbert). Wig designer Gerald Altenburg keeps up with her, piling multi-colored coifs high on the actors, in varying degrees of character-revealing absurdity.
Edward E. Haynes Jr.'s set is an imposing but versatile fa™ade fronted by a sleek black floor that works like a reflecting pool, making the space look taller than it is. Deep-red theatrical curtains frame the set, giving the Taper's thrust stage an uncanny proscenium feel, as if to say: All this world's a stage, and these merely players.
The comedy they play out has age-old contours: Teazle has plucked his young wife (Kate Fry) from the country, thinking her naivet˜ makes her a safe bet for a loyal helpmate. Fat chance: She's since had her head turned by the social whirl of London's fashionable set and won't be dissuaded from its twittering orbit.
Behind the Teazles' quarrels over her clothing bill and her busybody friends, though, Bedford and Fry deliver the unspeakably touching spectacle of an old fellow as smitten as he is befuddled, wrapped around the finger of a harmlessly flirtatious young woman hurling herself into fun as if making up for lost time. She's having so much fun, in fact, she can't see that the motives of her new fair-weather friends in the catty chattering class--steely Lady Sneerwell (Carolyn Seymour), blowsy Mrs. Candour (Marianne Muellerleile), mincing Benjamin Backbite (Scott Parkinson) and his uncle Crabtree (Hibbert)--are more likely to be bitterness, envy and petty hatred.
For all his high-minded scorn of these brittle figures, Sir Peter has a huge blind spot of his own: He can't recognize possibly the worst schemer of them all, young Joseph Surface (Don Reilly), who impresses with flowery, courtly rhetoric while plotting more intrigues than he can handle, particularly against his profligate brother Charles (Kevin O'Donnell), whose unapologetic, youthful embrace of the wild life turns out to be proof of his authenticity.
The play hurtles inexorably toward a scene of terrible revelation that, in one stunning moment, disabuses both Teazles of their illusions. It's to the production's credit that this second-act scene is milked not only for all its laughs, but for its full measure of moral satisfaction and pathos.
The play's other match-ups--between prodigal Charles and Sir Peter's pretty young ward Maria (Devon Sorvari), and between the Surface brothers and their benefactor uncle Sir Oliver (Ted Barton)--are given their due and no more, which is a distinct relief; in Bedford's deftly edited version, we spend no more time on these subplots than they deserve.
Just as a note or two of tedium begin to sound in Act Two, the plot begins to tie itself up neatly. We may be way ahead of its twists and turns--my companion's main complaint, in fact. This is often the case, though, with archetypal classics. The trick that Bedford and company pull off is to earn that inevitable, satisfying denouement: to make us crave it and share in it, however much we know it's coming, just as surely as we know that no amount of marital squabbling will ever separate the Teazles.
"There is great satisfaction in quarreling with her," Sir Peter notes with bemused pleasure at one point. This relish for minor irritation which, while never seriously threatening, still manages to disarm with laughter and make us feel alive to our human folly, may be the essence of this production's immense appeal.
School for Scandal is at the Mark Taper through Jan. 23, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or taperahmanson.com.