Theater Review: Slander as an art in the old days

From left, Edward Hibbert, Devon Sorvari, Marianne Muellerleile and Scott Parkinson.

Those with a philosophical bent will see in “The School for Scandal” much that seems pertinent in this day of rumor mongering, celebrity gossip and political spin. The estimable farce by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, written in 1777, needs no modern day analogy to stands on its own as a witty, hilarious condemnation of the purveyors of character assassination. The production, currently at the Mark Taper Forum, captures the subtleties of the play so completely that it is irresistible.

Everything is done to perfection, from the clever set, which meets the needs of the changing venues, to the lavish costumes, which capture the period. The wigs, the makeup, the accessories are all 18th century chic! However, all that would mean nothing were it not for the superb ensemble cast. Much of the credit must go to Brian Bedford who serves not only as director, but also as the leading character, Sir Peter Teazle. He is a master of the role of elderly gentleman with younger wife. He delivers the lines exquisitely, with just the right nuances, just the right expressions on his face. He can make you laugh by raising his eyebrows!

He has the perfect mate in Kate Fry as Lady Teazle. Pretty and pert, she is suspected of having an affair with one of the two nephews of his old friend, Sir Oliver Surface. But which one?

There are unexpected entrances, hidden doors, disguises, misunderstandings and all the goodies that make for a delightful farce.

Since this is about scandal, the play needs a good crew of vicious gossipers, all eager to be the first with the bad news. What a crew! There is the aging Lady Sneerwell, played by Carolyn Seymour, with her skyscraper hairdo and suspiciously rosy cheeks. Marianne Muellerleile, as Lady Candour, is hilariously droll as she claims to be innocent of animosity, but blithely tattles about everyone. The two other culprits are Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle Crabtree. Played by Scott Parkinson and Edward Hibbert, they are the ultimate fops in Pompadour wigs, white makeup with beauty marks, and high heeled shoes. Parkinson is also perfect as Snake, the nefarious go-between, loyal to whoever pays him.

Of course, there must be lovers. Don Reilly as Joseph Surface and Kevin O’Donnell as Charles Surface are both seeking the hand and purse of Maria (Devon Sorvari), the beautiful ward of Sir Teazle. One is a hypocrite and the other a wastrel. Who will win?

Adding fun to the proceedings are John Cunningham as Sir Oliver and Nick Ullett as Rowley, both intent on finding the nephew who is true blue. Others who handle smaller roles with aplomb are Julia Coffey, Eric Strickland, Timothy Edward Kane, Jenna Cole, Sharon Sachs, Ted Barton and J. Kenneth Campbell.

The charming setting was created by Ann Curtis and adapted by Edward E. Haynes Jr. Catherine Zuber deserves the award for Best Costumes in a Play, hands down. Gerald Altenburg should also be mentioned for hair and wig design.

“The School for Scandal” is recommended on all counts. It lampoons what is vicious in society and offers a lesson for today. Then there is the joy of watching Brian Bedford’s eyebrows.