More than 200 years before “Gossip Girl,” Restoration dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan called out snarky commentators on the foibles of the upper class. His renowned 1777 comedy “The School for Scandal” is a veritable carnival of backbiting, rumor-mongering and character assassination — all played out against a couple of true loves whose courses, true to the Bard, run not smooth but through hoops of calumny.
The gifted actress Paula Plum is at the helm of this Actors’ Shakespeare Project revival of Sheridan’s comedy of manners, the production’s own course veering between period refinement and loopy, saucy modernity. In an adaptation by Steven Barkhimer that streamlines but doesn’t rewrite the original, the style-flipping staging is a little jarring. But if you don’t mind your arch period fare regularly dropping its upright pinkie to flip the bird, it’s a lot of fun.
“The School for Scandal” centers on a two-faced troupe of slanderers who not only pass on wittily phrased gossip, but also pride themselves on inventing it. With names like Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite, these stock characters openly display their colors — along with lavish, foppish attire and wigs resembling birds’ nests exploding into feathers. (The impressive costumes are by Tyler Kinney and Jen Bennett, with hair and makeup by Amber Voner.) At the center of the clique is Lady Sneerwell, who, once stained by gossip, now flings it around as if in a food fight.
The elegantly malicious widow’s principal accomplice is Snake — a forger for hire, among other things. Currently, they are spreading slander regarding the fidelity of Lady Teazle, the much younger wife of middle-aged Sir Peter Teazle, as well as plotting against the romantic alliance of Sir Peter’s rich and dewy ward, Maria, with a generous profligate called Charles Surface.
In on the intrigue is Charles’ elder, hypocritical brother Joseph, who wants Maria for her money. Chief dupe in the business is Sir Peter, who praises Joseph as “a man of sentiment” (meaning sincerity and truth) and decries the frankly hedonistic spendthrift Charles as a wastrel. Truth will out, however, when the Surfaces’ Uncle Oliver returns from a long sojourn in the East Indies to test the characters of his nephews.
But before we get to all that high-societal scheming, the ASP production bursts onto the stage of Cambridge’s Multicultural Arts Center (where it runs through May 8), first with a cleverly rhymed new prologue by Barkhimer, then with a bumptious, harpsichord-accompanied ditty in which the ladies of the play allege that “I don’t give a damn about my reputation. A girl can do whatever she wants to do, and that’s what I intend to do.” This runs counter to Sheridan, but adds a feminist twist to proceedings in which such defiance ultimately gets slapped down, its main perpetrator chastened. But hey, it’s 1777, and chattel can only get away with so much.
I admit to some reservations about the diversity of acting styles here, though there is a rationale for it: The more straightforward characters are portrayed naturally, if broadly, while the hypocritical, spiteful ones are cloaked in artifice. The contrast is perhaps increased by most of the actors' playing two or even three parts.
Chief among comical switch hitters in this busy production is Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, whose whipped-cream-coiffed Lady Teazle is delightfully vulgar, many of her utterances descending from a chirp to a bark, but whose slick-haired Snake is a graceful, tongue-flicking caricature. Barnett-Mulligan carries the comedy a bit far when Lady Teazle, discovered in a gentleman’s apartment in the famous “screen scene,” freezes like a gape-mouthed fish. But her high-speed performance is otherwise both charming (Lady T.) and oleaginous (Snake).
Gabriel Graetz is credible, even touching as Sir Peter, who can’t help loving his extravagant, contemptuous wife even while deploring her backstabbing set. Also convincing while eschewing utter simpiness is Rebecca Schneebaum as the sensitive Maria, whom malice-driven wit reduces to tears and trembling. Transformed by breeches and a potbelly, she also portrays Rowley, the Surface family friend forging a path toward the truth about the brothers.
The reliable Richard Snee gives a blunt if freewheeling performance as Sir Oliver, whether as himself or in disguise, then turns into a lisping, preening fop as Sir Benjamin Backbite. And spreading joie de vivre while dragging around a bag of empties is Omar Robinson as big-hearted bad boy Charles.
Among the play’s cadre of vipers, Sarah Newhouse — bewigged in blue cotton candy — is as cool as a rotting cucumber as Lady Sneerwell; she even goes down with a graceful smolder. Michael Underhill is all genteel posing and slick affectation as two-timing seducer Joseph. As Mrs. Candour, who deplores gossip while helping to spread it, Bobbie Steinbach is her excellent self, but she shines in the small role of Moses the moneylender, who in her smiley rendition is clumsy, amiable and a little simple.
Plum, though her production sometimes leans toward the clownish, keeps it hopping — up and down a steep staircase, in and out of neighboring houses, between tête-a-tête and buzzing assembly in the filigreed playing space of the Multicultural Arts Center — as Sheridan lampoons the amoral cattiness of his time. Crucially, she understands and underlines the theatricality of the piece. Among the movable screens that define the various locales are a couple that portray an 18th-century audience arrayed in its boxes, like us, enjoying the fray.