In an attempt to generate a bit of ballyhoo around his latest directorial endeavor, Guthrie headman Joe Dowling has enlisted the omnipresent champion of the mundane, Garrison Keillor, to contribute a prologue and epilogue to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic comedy of bad manners. Mr. Keillor has, in turn, responded by penning a mildly funny and eminently Keilloresque ode to the local scandals du jour, targeting in particular our hugely overexposed governor's penchant for controlled substances, concealed firearms, and ladies of the night. Given the recent friction between the two men, it may be more provocation than a mild-mannered writer ought to offer a gun-toting politician prone to 'roid rage. Thankfully, the body of the Guthrie's staunchly orthodox production of The School for Scandal dispenses with Ventura-based humor and gives Sheridan's caustic wit top billing. Less fortunate for theatergoers weary of public contretemps, neither Mr. Dowling nor Mr. Keillor has much to add to said wit.
After Keillor's introduction, delivered to a sympathetic house by actor Stephen Pelinski, we meet the aptly named Snake (J.C. Cutler) and Lady Sneerwell (Helen Carey), the preeminent mongers of scandal in Sheridan's rogue's gallery of gossips, charlatans, and misanthropes. The naughty lady is perusing the latest smutty broadsheet while her serpentine companion lounges effetely on a divan. Before words are exchanged, Snake delivers an opening salvo of gastrointestinal repartee. Sneerwell casually sprays the air with perfume, and the tone for the evening is set. In its broadly drawn caricatures and bawdy body humor, the comedy here bears more resemblance to a sitcom than an 18th-century social satire.
The situation of the comedy is this: Two brothers, one a "sentimental" social climber named Joseph Surface (Pelinski), and the other a dissolute prodigal son named Charles (Scott Ferrara), are competing for the affection and fortune of an heiress named Maria (Mia Barron). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the suitors, the wealthy Sir Oliver (Paul O'Brien) has returned from the East Indies to decide which of the Surface boys will inherit his estate. He is aided in his decision by Sir Peter Teazle (Ken Ruta), who is cuckolded by his comely and much younger bride (Ellen Karas). The comedy of the situation is this: Joseph is something of a player, and though he appears to be the better of the brothers, his libertine sibling is the more honest of the two.
Comic relief (if a play that has no apparent dramatic pretensions can have comic relief) is provided throughout by a bevy of gossips, including Mrs. Candour (the redoubtable Barbara Bryne), an addled matron who condemns the rumor mill while gleefully turning its wicked wheel; Crabtree (the equally redoubtable Richard S. Iglewski), a fop who appears in the 18th-century equivalent of a lime-green leisure suit; and his protégé, Sir Benjamin Backbite (the no less redoubtable Jim Lichtscheidl), a poet of questionable skill who sports an enormous orange bouffant and a ridiculous splotch of rouge on either cheek (one of many nice touches in Mathew LeFebvre's costume design). As the trio sashays about the stage, they take on the aspect of a flock of wingless tropical birds, strutting and squawking in pursuit of the latest bit of buzz.
Though the actors are set pieces unto themselves (Barbara Bryne appears in one scene with a gilded birdcage strapped to her head), Frank Hallinan Flood's set is also a clever parody of the conventions of Restoration comedy. Behind the round and sparsely furnished playing space, there is an enormous oil painting of a Versailles-like sitting room in which courtesans of every stripe engage in sin of every type. The imposing flatness of the canvas both addresses the logistical problem of performing a play designed for a proscenium theater on a thrust stage, and underscores the fact that the characters in the foreground are essentially nothing but their public façades.
As the veneer of Georgian propriety cracks, the Guthrie's production lurches toward farce. There is a nicely choreographed scene in which Charles Surface, a group of soiled doves, and a drinking buddy named Careless (Omari Shakir) engage in a bacchanalian orgy that devolves quickly into something like a Restoration frat party. Later, in the play's famous denouement, Joseph is caught in his own web of lies when Sir Peter shows up unannounced while his wife, Lady Teazle, hides behind a nearby dressing screen. Joseph's romantic machinations are uncovered, of course, and he gets his much deserved comeuppance from Sir Oliver. The cast throw themselves at the farcical bits with a sort of reckless mania, but alas, a cuckolded husband, a naughty wife, and a disingenuous rake do not by themselves a satire make.
Sheridan's satirical bite, which is as venomous as Molière's and as quick as Wilde's, comes not from epigrammatic flourishes, but from the subtle undermining of Georgian social mores. In the play's best scene, for example, Sir Oliver has come to Charles in the guise of moneylender and has asked the handsome rapscallion to sell off the paintings of the family patriarchs, which are hanging upstage as a wall of drooping and gloomy English faces. Charles auctions his ancestors off without a second thought but holds on to a portrait of his benefactor for sentimental reasons. Here the landed gentry, with their outmoded notions of propriety over character, are eclipsed by the fluid moral code of the ascendant petite bourgeoisie, represented by Charles. Sir Peter's wife, too, is a sort of budding capitalist--an uncultured bumpkin in the Wife of Bath mode who preys on the sentiments of a doddering lord to break into high society. In this realm, gossip is a form of social control, wielded by the essentially impotent elite to force conformity among their peers. By play's end, their hypocrisy has been thoroughly skewered, and, again in the figure of Charles, the merchant class has graduated to the top of the pile.
The finale of Dowling's production is, by contrast, a return to domestic bliss. All loose ends are tied up nicely and the cast gathers onstage to hear Ellen Karas deliver Keillor's tepid parting shots. It is a witty enough business on the whole, but after a long evening of blustering and fretting, it seems even less funny and more Keilloresque than the prologue. Like everything that hints at fresh interpretation in this School for Scandal, Keillor's additions are negligible at best and prove both less diverting and less instructive than they might. Finally, when the bard of the bland has had his say and the cast has taken their bows, the curtain falls. School is out and we are glad to be done with it.
The School for Scandal runs through July 18 at the Guthrie Theater; (612) 337-2224.