Review: ‘The School for Scandal’ at The Lucille Lortel Theatre in NYC

I doubt if in 1777 Richard Brinsley Sheridan was giving much thought to whether or not his comedy of manners would have any relevance to New York audiences in  239 years. But here he is again, at the Lortel Theatre off Broadway in a first class production offered by the Red Bull Theatre Company, under the direction of Marc Vietor. Red Bull is named after a leading theatre in Shakespere’s London, and its mission is to create a home for plays of heightened language and epic expression. Its company includes the excellent character actors Dana Ivey and Mark Linn-Baker and a supporting company of devoted and dedicated actors who are comfortable and adroit at playing high comedy without camp or condescension.

 Christian DeMarais, Henry Stram, and Christian Conn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Christian DeMarais, Henry Stram, and Christian Conn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The School For Scandal is a challenge for a contemporary company, for it is not only a very funny satirical farce, but it has a few wise things to say about the society of its time which, except for the wigs, fans and costumes is not all that unlike our very own society as we populate the 21st century. There is still a lot of hypocrisy, pomposity, self-delusion, ambition, competition, prejudice, and duplicity going around, and Sheridan artfully leads us as we follow a group of high born socialites and their servants through the particulars of all of these items  in his time.

There are three groups of characters, loosely interconnercted, starting with Lady Sneerwell and her coterie, the Teazle household with its mismatched husband and wife and their ward, and the brothers Charles and Joseph Surface who, along with Mrs. Candour, Mr. Snake, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Mr. Crabtree, Mr. Midas, and Sir Toby Bumper are all amusingly written and aptly named. Most importantly they are also very well-played.

Mrs. Candour’s delicious monologue about other people who seem always to be talking is delivered by the resplendent Dana Ivey with total solipsism. She has no idea she is describing herself. Mark Linn-Baker, always welcome season after season, is right on target as the cuckolded Sir Peter Teazle, who is technically married to the impossibly self serving younger wife (from the country).

She in turn is played with a delicately comic touch by Helen Cespedes, a John Houseman Award winner at the Juilliard School.  Frances Barber has had a rich and varied 30 year career, and makes every nasty remark that emanates from Lady Sneerwell sound freshly minted. She prattles on a mile a minute, but she hits her mark by knowing just what to do with the vicious comments Mr. Sheridan gives her as ammunition. Jacob Dresch’s “Snake” is an original comic invention. I’m quibbling, but in my opinion he or the director might consider just a bit of editing to put him right up there with the best of the amusingly insane character actors like Franklyn Pangborn, Eric Blore in the wacky film comedies of the 1930s, and a lot more recently, Brooks Ashmanskas, Roger Bart, and Brad Oscar onstage.

The romantic center of the comedy involves the lovely Nadine Malouf as Sir Peter’s ward Maria (“an heiress”) and her two suitors, the brothers Charles and Joseph Surface. Joseph is solid and respectable; Charles is a free soul who is having a jolly life. Christian Demaris and Christian Conn play them both well. But there are surprises in both of them, and finding out what they are is half the fun.

Director Mark Vietor has kept this merry frolic spinning all evening long, with the help of a very flexible set designed by Anna Louizos, rich and ripe costumes by Andrea Lauer, and spotlighting par excellence by Russell H. Champa that keeps focus cleanly as walls spin, backdrops change and furniture glides effortlessly and with great speed.

The cast of 'The School for Scandal.' Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The cast of ‘The School for Scandal.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The original music and sound design by Greg Pliska nicely led us into each act, announcing the jaunty style of the piece. Charles LaPointe’s wigs make their own sizable contribution, helping each actor who wears one (and that’s just about every one) to transform and time travel back to 1777.

For a different sort of  treat, hie yourself to the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street for a rare visit to the reigning hit of the 1777 London Season at the Drury Lane. And lest you think this ancient play will appeal mostly to ancient audiences, the young lady of about 13 sitting in front of me was infectiously laughing for the entire 2 l/2 hours.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission..


The School for Scandal playing through May 8, 2016 at The Lucille Lortel Theatre – 121 Christopher Street, In New York City. For tickets, call the box at (212) 352-3101, or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.


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