Jesse Berger has been devoting his Red Bull Theater company to presenting first-rate productions of the classics, which isn't the sort of thing that happens all that frequently on these shores, certainly not often enough that anyone can become complacent about it. Now, at the Lucille Lortel, he's emerged with one of his best examples of how it's done.
It's Richard Brinsley Sheridan's always deliciously nasty 1777 The School for Scandal as directed pretty much flawlessly by Marc Vietor with a helpful period set by Anna Louizos and colorful, telling costumes by Andrea Lauer.
This is the one poking mean fun at society gossip Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber, smartly imported from England) and at rumor-spreading Mr. Snake (Jacob Dresch). Those upper-class snipers set out to make trouble for Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker in one of his best-ever performances) and young wife Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes). They're also out to get Surface brothers Charles (Christian Demarais), who appears to be incorrigibly dissolute, and Joseph (Christian Conn), who appears to be immaculately forthright.
Part of the Lady Sneerwell-Mr. Snake plot involves nubile heiress Maria (Nadine Malouf), who's blocking the wedded alliance Lady Sneerwell wants to pin down with Charles Surface. Another fly in Sheridan's fancy ointment concerns which of the Surface brothers are most grateful to their benefactor uncle Sir Oliver Surface (Henry Stram), who's returned from a long time away to test his nephews' gratitude, an activity that causes unsuspected results.
By today's standards of the well-made play The School for Scandal is the slightest bit disjointed, but it boasts the wonderful hidden-behind-a-screen scene and has been in the comedy canon for so long that the work of the clever 26-year-old Sheridan rightly remains cherished. The fun he has sending up the hypocrisies of his time is too good to question.
Not when Barber, amusingly pinched mouthed, is on the boil. Or when Mr. Snake is bowing and scraping in an architecturally challenging green wig (by Charles G. LaPointe). (Perhaps this villain is decked out in green in honor of the old "snake in the grass" phrase). Certainly, the romp has its pull when Sir Peter Teazle and Lady Teazle are arguing, patching things up and arguing again, and Linn-Baker and Cespedes are making the most of the marital rancor. And when Demarais of the sharp features is playing a rake who might have sprung directly from a Thomas Rowlandson drawing. And when Conn is so suavely portraying the devious Joseph. And when Stram is masquerading so twinklingly in order to find the better nephew.
Not the least of the pluses for this highly recommended The School for Scandal revival isn't one that shows up on stage. It's the ingenious logo depicting a snake contorted to resemble the outline of an ear. Bravo to a single image that so succinctly conjures the mentality of an entire age.