The white lace handkerchiefs are flapping furiously at the Lyceum Theater these days. Little fingers are crooked into right angles; eyebrows are arched to the hairlines and epigrams, couched in plummier-than-thou English accents, are being shot into the balcony like cannonballs.
The symptoms are unmistakable: someone is reviving Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal," and in the time-honored manner so well known to audiences of high-school assembly productions and touring repertory companies.
This latest incarnation is the work of the National Actors Theater, the valiant but unfortunate institution founded five years ago by Tony Randall, which has doggedly been reviving assorted classics with a hand of lead. Here the troupe has joined forces with the Great Lakes Theater Festival, which presented this version of the play for two weeks last month, and the worthy touring Acting Company of young performers.
The result, alas, is not to make this venerable chestnut of a comedy flower once again. The production, staged by Gerald Freedman (the artistic director at Great Lakes), isn't disastrous. It does have the virtues of intelligibility and audibility. (Even the actors with sliding accents have good diction and projection.) But it is also unwaveringly flat-footed.
It is easy to see why "School" is so beloved of English teachers. It has the sparkling wit of the Restoration comedies from which it is descended without that genre's dark cynicism. It has a moral quotient that might satisfy even Oscar Wilde's exacting Miss Prism, who insisted that fiction simply mean that "the good end happily and the bad unhappily." And it is dotted with delightfully silly-sounding names (Sir Filigree Flirt, Miss Gadabout, Sir Benjamin Backbite) to draw chuckles even from culture-proof students.
The work has also been cited as a paradigm of comic construction, giving rise to the myth that it is so precisely wrought that with a few period wigs, some lacy costumes and a chandelier, the piece can practically run itself, like a player piano. This is indeed a myth.
Mr. Freedman has made no attempt to provide a new perspective to freshen the comedy, a frothy satire about the reputation-savaging gossip mongers of fashionable society. Unlike Jonathan Miller's rawer, Hogarthian version of 1983, this one seldom ventures beyond the familiar perimeters suggested by Douglas W. Schmidt's standard-issue drawing-room set, which suggests a Bloomingdale's display for copies of period furniture.
And though the show begins (with overtones of the first scenes of Stephen Frear's film version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") with a lingerie-clad Lady Sneerwell (Mary Lou Rosato) gradually donning the wig, dress and maquillage that will be the venomous aristocrat's social armor, there's little difference between the facade and reality here.
Most of the performances are kept so close to the surface, with hypocrisies worn as visibly as their furbelows, that there is never any sense that these people could ever possibly delude one another. Indeed, Mr. Freedman's chief direction seems to have been that if you play the jokes, characterization will take care of itself. The reverse, of course, is always true, even when the jokes are as sterling as they are here.
Anchored by italicized deliveries, punctuated with long, long pauses to let punch lines set in, few of the performances ever soar. As Sir Peter Teazle, the rich old man with a saucy young wife, Mr. Randall plays Tony Randall, a comic construct whose inflections and expressions are as familiar as those of Mr. Magoo and Bart Simpson.
And the accomplished Simon Jones, portraying the two-faced, adage-spouting Joseph Surface, piles on so many Rococo mannerisms that he seems to be competing with the recorded harpsichord music. (It's actually sort of fun to watch, but there's a feeling of wild desperation about it.)
There are a few happy exceptions. Tom Hewitt finds a robust if slightly self-conscious charm in the part of Joseph's dissolute but honorable brother. In the smaller role of Rowley, Ron Randell demonstrates that a witty performance does not preempt subtlety.
And Kate Forbes, a rising star with the Acting Company, is a delectable Lady Teazle, a marzipan beauty with a breathless air. More important, she actually seems to have thought about why her flighty, ingenuous character acts as she does. She can also convincingly project the feeling that she is experiencing more than one emotion at a time. In this production, that's a rarity.
Critic Harold Clurman variously called "School for Scandal" "a good deed in a wicked world" and "Mozartian -- a kind of music for the mind." While most great plays demand greatness in the performance as well, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1777 comedy is such a superbly crafted laugh machine, and so timeless in delivering delectable comeuppance to a viper's nest of idle-rich gossipmongers, that you'd practically have to club it to death to stifle its amazing pleasures.
Yet that is exactly what director Gerald Freedman and star Tony Randall have managed to do with their production, all but squeezing the life out of a foolproof work. A co-production of Randall's continually declining National Actors Theatre Freedman's Great Lakes Theater Festival (where it was first presented), along with the Acting Company, this "School for Scandal" is a stolid costume parade (at least they're Theoni Aldredge's luxe threads) almost completely devoid ofhumor, let alone actual laughs.
Forget about the fact that, with its roster of scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells who would fit comfortably on any tabloid TV show, "Scandal" is ripe for a ripping, no-holds-barred presentation. Even taking the play at face value, it's classic that needs no special pleading, only a devilish heart to drive it and nimble bodies to make it pass lightly. The present production lacks both.
What we have instead is Randall's second-rate mugging as Sir Peter Teazle, the rich old boor who can't make his young wife love him or stop spending his fortune. That it's a role seemingly tailor-made for the putative star merely underscores his limitations as an actor. That the performance also manages to drag down a company that includes such good actors as Simon Jones, Norman Snow, Mary Lou Rosato and Jennifer Harmon, among others, is heartbreaking.
Merely depressing are Douglas W. Schmidt's serviceable but tacky-looking set and Robert Waldman's ersatz-Mozart incidental music. There's no bio of Sheridan in the Playbill, and that makes sense: He's nowhere to be found onstage, either.