Dec 9, 2004

Scandalous Successes

Romantic folly has seldom produced more satisfying comic confections than A Noise Within's still-running A FLEA IN HER EAR, which I finally caught last weekend, or the Taper's new THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, which I saw last night. Both productions are perfectly proportioned combinations of absurdity, witticism, and pathos--though I should offer the important note that not everyone who's seen the latter production has been as enhtusiastic as I. The lead of my forthcoming review in the Downtown New says as much:
In a spirit of full disclosure worthy of Mrs. Candour, one of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan's more indelible comic creations, I feel duty-bound to offer these disclaimers right upfront: I know of at least one discerning acquaintance who did not return after the intermission... and my theatregoing companion later described her state throughout much of the play as “antsy.”

A further confession: I myself have been known to doze and nod through productions of this 18th century classic about intriguing gossip-mongers in London high society.

So why did I--and much of the audience around me--have such a roaring good time?

I attribute it to Brian Bedford, naturally. He's not only the show's star, in the frumpish role of cuckold-waiting-to-happen Sir Peter Teazle, but its director and virtual adapter--this is a lean, clean two-act version that keeps it light without skimping on the heart. Catherine Zuber's costumes and Gerald Altenburg's wigs are practically co-stars, but I was particularly keen on Kate Fry's performance as Lady Teazle, which she manages to infuse with a disarming degree of warmth. Her scenes with Bedford are the play's highlights, though there's plenty of competition from Edward Hibbert and Scott Parkinson as a pair of simpering fops in ruffles, cuffs, and buckled heels.

Flea, meanwhile, is practically Farrelly Bros.-esque in its rude slapstick shenanigans. It's far and away the best farce I've seen in a long time, and certainly the best ever at A Noise Within, with the much-noted Louis Lotorto giving his speech-impeded flunky more shades than would seem possible and Dorthea Harahan making a positively perfect jealous flirt as Mrs. Chandel (a cousin to Lady Teazle, actually). I was disappointed to see that Jenna Cole, billed in the program as the proprietress of the Pretty Pussy Inn, was not at the performance I saw--she's among my favorite actors around--but it turns out she has a three-line bit in the Taper's Scandal and thus couldn't stay with Flea through its extension. That this powerhouse actress is in a tiny part at the Taper should give some idea how overqualified that cast is, but ANW's Flea is scarcely less impressive on that score: In the typically thankless roles of servants and other supporting players are such brilliant thesps as Alan Blumenfeld, Michael Manuel, Stephen Rockwell, and Mark Bramhall, who give their scenes serious snap and tickle. On the night I attended, I noticed seasoned ANW player Joel Swetow in the audience, script on his lap; he's going on next weekend for Richard Soto, a highlight of the show as a hot-blooded Latin husband. That's a big moustache to fill but I know Joel will offer his own leonine take on the role.

With this much first-rate theatrical talent around L.A. (Bedford told me, in fact, that he had better luck casting for Scandal here than in New York), it's a real gift to see these actors getting a chance to strut their stuff in a pair of pure entertainments. If so-called "classical" theatre were always this much fun, I doubt we'd hear many more sobering discussions about the future of the performing arts. When these artists build it, the people come.

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