CAMBRIDGE — The Latin root of the word reputation has to do with carefully reflecting on something. And so reputation itself is something that exists in thought — or, truly, in collective thought. Perhaps it reflects certain quantifiable realities; perhaps it doesn’t. Personal reputation in particular can be a distorted mirror.
“The School for Scandal,” a 1777 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, takes a deep look into this cracked reflection, considering the true value of a good reputation and its relationship to personal character. Refreshingly, this comedy of manners is far from a stern morality play — few of its characters come off terribly well, and even the most generous spirit rides along on a boozy immoderacy that doesn’t seem very, to use a contemporary term, sustainable.
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of the play, staged at the Multicultural Arts Center through May 8, is a delight. Expertly acted, and fluidly directed by Paula Plum like a series of ballroom dances that occasionally burst into breakdancing, this centuries-old material becomes a bracing crowd-pleaser.
The play’s titular school is the social network of idle British peers and gentry, scheming busybodies who, in one character’s memorable phrase, “murder characters to kill time.” Though much here feels more French than British, Sheridan, who was elected to Parliament a few years after the play’s debut, sets the action in London. The liaisons here are never really all that dangerous. Sex is a weapon, but one yielded more vaguely as a lure than as an indulgence that destroys lives upon consummation.
Near the top of the show, the deliciously named Lady Sneerwell (Sarah Newhouse), who seems to be getting along just fine, proclaims the pleasure in “reducing others to the injured level of my own reputation.” Near the end, her helper Snake (a very funny Lydia Barnett-Mulligan — more on her in a moment) does a good deed but asks that the fact be kept a secret: “I live by the badness of my character, and if it were once known that I had been betrayed into an honest action, I should lose every friend I have in the world.” So the stakes are low — nobody’s precious reputation seems all that valuable in the first place — and there’s nothing said here about public virtue and private vice that isn’t already taken as a given by a contemporary audience.
Even if Sheridan’s satire has lost its sting, Plum and her actors cram the piece with funny business, finding moments to ham it up without detracting from the forward momentum. Most actors do double duty, portraying, in Rebecca Schneebaum’s case, a prim maiden one moment and a male servant the next. (If only there were awards for successful quick-changes.) And at least twice, Barnett-Mulligan begins her costume change onstage, nodding to the multiple layers of artifice at play here in this stage production about people who wear their sentiments like costumes.
Barnett-Mulligan gives a breakout performance, stealing scenes at every turn. Even if there’s a sense here of throwing every bit of business at the wall to see what sticks, her confidence is always appealing. Her powers should only increase in performances that moderate this fierce energy a bit; I found her bulging eyes, at the prospect of a romantic liaison, funnier even than a much bigger gesture made later.
Each cast member does excellent work. In addition to those named above, Gabriel Graetz, Omar Robinson, Richard Snee, Bobbie Steinbach, and Michael Underhill seem to be having great fun with the light material (while navigating its heightened language), and it’s catching.
And about those period costumes, by Tyler Kinney and Jen Bennett — they are sumptuous, each a tour de force of indulgent affectations that could amount to gaucherie were the wearers not so socially esteemed. Steven Barkhimer’s adaptation of Sheridan’s play is flowing and accessible. J. Michael Griggs’s set does much with some pieces of furniture and free-standing screens.
In fact, everyone involved with this production deserves a boost in reputation. Whatever that’s worth.
THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
Play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Adapted by Steven Barkhimer. Directed by Paula Plum. At Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge, through May 8. Tickets: $28-$50, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org