Pleasantly Scandalous

Entering the Dunster JCR, you'd never know there was a show there. The couches and wood paneling and portraits give
By Amy E. Schwartz

Entering the Dunster JCR, you'd never know there was a show there. The couches and wood paneling and portraits give their usual impression of a stately drawing room, except for the two ushers buzzing about with a little more than the usual confusion persuading the audience to sit in weird configurations on the floor.

Certainly, at least one of director Brian Sands's objectives succeeds in this production of Sheridan's The School for Scandal, running through this weekend--to make the audience feel that it is sitting in someone's Restoration living room eavesdropping on the hottest new gossip.

A snappy and clever cast does do what House drama should and does do best: not try to present deep and thought-provoking drama, but to richly entertain. Going to Scandal is like going to Great Adventure on the Fourth of July and stopping to watch the fireworks on the way home.

There's the Sheridan plot. Joseph Surface (Andrew Olson) has an alliance with the gossip Ms. Sneerwell (Melissa Franklin); the neighborhood thinks they're shacked up, but it's strictly a business relationship formed so that Ms. Sneerwell can entrap Joseph's brother Charles, which in turn would enable Joseph to pursue Charles's sweetheart Maria. And so forth, with old gentlemen, loan sharks, inheritances and marital quarrels all mingling in a rollercoaster plot that just can't be disliked.

Sands keeps things going by maintaining the light touch which is the show's greatest strength. At times it goes too far, as with the cast's steadfast refusal to give the graceful 17th-century lines any more emphasis than they would modern English. Despite the modern clothes, the translation of pounds to dollars, Sheridan's language deserves the flourish and emphasis of the Old World; without it, only the verbosity carries through.

For a while, the actors seem to feel this mismatching, as the first few scenes tend towards the wooden. But by the time the audience cross-legged down the JCR's length, with only a narrow aisle for the actors) has craned its collective neck as the scene flashes from one end of the long room to the other, the game is beginning to pick up, the dance takes on its own rhythm. And when Sands turns on the lights and announces, "The sceneshifts and so will we," and 60-odd people trail after him through the tunnels to the grill to perch on pool tables, they are no longer skeptical parents but entranced kids begging for more ride on the carousel.

The cast delivers it. Hanging onto a steady crescendo of comic tension, Andrew Atkinson as the reprobate Charles Surface and Michael Hasselmo as his dignified uncle-with-the-money square off over a Dunster pool table, drawing more and more delicious rhythm from the lines as they gain confidence.

It's not just the jokes in the script that cause the fun--though, to be sure, four centuries have hardly dulled their sparkle. It's not just the judicious and sometimes overdone substitution of references to "defense spending" and "riding around in limos." These are easy laughs. What sparks the fun is, rather, the sustained collective whimsy in which everyone, cast and audience, manages to join.

It takes some doing to coax a roomful of sage, serious adult Harvard students into the frame of mind where they will laugh and cheer hysterically at the sight of other Harvard students thrusting one another behind draperies, only to stumble on still others. But it undoubtedly can be done. And while none of the group that troops out--forgetting, for laughter, to rub its collective strained neck--will go home and discuss the finer points of drama, few will escape without the four-year-old gleam in the eye that comes from one last swoop on the ferris wheel.