Who was it that said, “a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?” I think it might have been attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. But in any case, whoever said it uttered a classic oxymoron. The late President Gerald Ford rivalled him in the observation that If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.
The formal definition is a conjunction of apparently contradictory words joined to achieve an effect. The Greek roots of the word combine two words that mean sharp and dull or keen and stupid. Those roots provide fertile soil for the satirist. Some of the most notable ones of those is the first person to nominate these two: Civil Servant and Great Britain.
Should you suspect that that individual was a native of the Emerald Isle you may be forgiven. Starting with an 18th Century Parliamentarian named Sir Boyle Roche who rose to address an issue of spending money for a project that would only begin delivering benefits to a future generation is reported to have said, “Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”
There is one school of literary criticism that conjectures that Sir Boyle was an inspiration for the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop in his play The Rivals. But that may underestimate him. Consider how deftly he used the construction when he was quoted as saying that anyone opposing freedom of speech should be silenced. (Shades of some recent news reports.) And thus was born the sometimes innocent, often sly verbal construction known as The Irish Bull. And I’m here to testify that the pattern of speech is alive and well. (And I’m not referring to any recent, contentious confrontations of press and politician.) I favor a definition that classifies the Irish Bull as an apparent contradiction used for emphasis.
As the “token American” recruited to the New York staff of the Irish Government’s Export Board (as marketing communication’s liaison), I knew I’d better get myself up to speed when I heard the following exchange between a phone caller and the Director’s highly professional assistant. “This is the phone number you can use to contact Mr. Mulcahy, but he is rarely there.” And I don’t think she was trying to be ironic. My great source of enlightenment was a delightful paperback title called The Irish Book of Bull: Better than all the Udders. (And No, it doesn’t suggest what you may assume it does.) I acquired the slim volume and can testify that I have done so over and over (even now when it is technically out of print) since it remains to this day the most “purloined” volume in my library. But be assured it is worth the search.
Sir Boyle Roche’s worthy contemporary descendants include the mourner said to have gazed into the coffin of the deceased and lamented, “Ah, he’s not the man he used to be, and never was.” And the comedian who got great laughs with the observation, “So I went out to get on my motorcycle, and there it was, gone.” Or the apparently innocent inquirer who asked, “Are you reading that newspaper you’re sitting on?”
If you are drawn to such word play you may also mount a search for Willard R. Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play. This is a feast for the fun-seeker, copyrighted in 1975 and introduced by the late, great Alistair Cooke who said it was to language what a football was to Joe Namath, a golf ball to Arnold Palmer or a male of the species to Zsa Zsa Gabor. To tempt the palate of those who savor words as fun, here are some appetizers from a section focusing on headlines that linger and which uses the headline “Nudists Take Off.” It includes “Papa Passes”, the headline of an Ernest Hemingway obituary, and the obituary of Abdul Ahzis as “Abdul Ahzis as Was.” Espy opined that he doubted the New York Times was trying to be funny when it described an imminent widening of a strike by hotel workers in these words, “Maids all to go out with Hotel Waiters.” By 1981, Espy had added the title Have a Word on Me: a Celebration of Language.
In an era when words too often seem used as weapons, the likes of McHale and Espy are worth the search. What price insight that leads to laughter? And while you’re at it you may want to search for a copy of James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. It’s a collection of examples of venery, the use of a collective noun to describe a group. A gaggle of geese, for example; or a pride of lions. I can predict that people who sample this book together will be moved to turn the practice into a game or contest. One such event I enjoyed with good friends competing for a good laugh came up with such classifications as “an inventory of archivists”; and “a scuffle of little boys,” “a ledger of CPAs.”
With all due respect for the power of 140 characters, it may be more important than ever to let the words, and the laughter flow. And that’s no Bull, Irish or otherwise.
“The world is so censorious, no character will escape.”
From the moment we hear “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and get a gander at Mr. Snake’s (Jacob Dresch) green pompadour wig, we know we’re not in Kansas anymore; this will not be just another good production of the familiar eighteenth century Sheridan play. Indelicate bathroom sounds emitted by Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber) who enters in her corset and petticoat, recoils at a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and is powdered (her breast) and sprayed with cologne (beneath her skirt) by her confidante, cement the presumption that this particular interpretation of the piece is going to be a hoot. And it is.
Frances Barber, Jacob Dresch
In an era with neither The National Enquirer or Gawker, aristocrats pursued word-of-mouth gossip as entertainment as much as to promote personal agendas. Salons were ubiquitous. Amorality ruled.
Ok, in brief (deep breath) Lady Sneerwell has conscripted gossip columnist/critic Mr. Snake to further her designs on Charles Surface (Christian Demarais), a dissipated, bankrupt extravagant. Both Charles and his brother Joseph (Christian Conn) are stuck on heiress Maria (Nadine Malouf), ward of Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker) who partially raised the boys in their traveling uncle’s absence.
Mark Linn-Baker and Henry Stram
Sir Peter is just married to a country girl who could be his daughter. The new Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes) was chosen for a fresh, uncomplicated nature that has turned to fashionable acquisition and matrimonial defiance. “If you wanted authority over me, you should’ve adopted me, not married me.” Unfortunately for him, her cowed husband loves the lady. Sir Peter favors Joseph over Charles and does everything he can to help the young man’s amorous suit (which Sheridan curiously doesn’t show) while Master Ranji (Ramsey Faragallah) “a family confidante from the Punjab,” (think Jeeves), does everything he can to help Master Charles.
Ramsey Faragallah, Mark Linn-Baker
Silk stocking malice is fueled by Mrs. Candour (Dana Ivey) whose life appears to revolve around being in the know, society poet, Sir Benjamin Backbite (Ryan Garbayo) also pursuing Maria, and his shifty, affected uncle, Mr. Crabtree (Derek Smith). Smith also plays moneylender Mr. Midas whose slick fedora, long coat and shades are the man’s only character distinction-a missed opportunity.
When Sir Oliver Surface (Henry Stram) unexpectedly returns from the Near East these 16 years later, he decides to test his nephews’ integrity by way of several masquerades. Then things get complicated!
Christian Demarais, Henry Stram,
Of particular note:
Dana Ivey’s motormouth Mrs. Candour, tricked out in low, hanging breasts and matronly padding, emerges an obtuse, busybody grande dame. Ivey, as always, is an artful pleasure. As Mr. Crabtree, Derek Smith looks like Antonio Bandaras in a Charles Adams cartoon or a villain out of the Batman franchise. The actor oils his way around the stage with balletic movement and delightfully treacherous aura. His glee in dispensing hearsay is palpable.
Jacob Dresch (Mr. Snake), who would make a perfect Puck (Midsummer’s Night’s Dream), is intoxicating. The actor flickers with expression worthy of the silent screen yet never crosses that line. Listening (overhearing) is tart, phrasing crackles with ulterior motive. The character’s late request to keep secret one moment of mortifying honesty is terrific.
Christian Demarais, Henry Stram, Christian Conn
Christian Demarais (Charles Surface) exemplifies the kind of attractive, unrepentant rake popularized in romance novels. Gestures and expressions are exaggeratedly broad indicating an uninhibited, young squire feeling his oats.
Mark Linn-Baker’s conservative, fussy, egocentric, rabbit-like Sir Peter is at every moment a delight. When he addresses the audience, we feel bemused but empathetic. The thespian holds attention with frisky, seemingly effortless energy.
The nimble Stram seems patrician to his bones. We see his upbringing even as Sir Oliver insecurely role-plays. With accomplished focus, the actor makes his character’s second deception seem more fluent than the first. When apoplectic, he’s restrained, when pleased, a hug bursts forth as if unaccustomed. Reasoning feels grounded, resolution fitting. A rewarding turn.
Ben Mehl, who plays the small parts of various servants, executes deadpan hesitance and piquant reaction.
Henry Stram,Nadine Malouf, Christian Conn, Christian Demarais, Ramsey Faragallah
How Director Marc Vietor manages constant, screwball flourishes without descending to kitsch is a marvel. Every character takes her/himself so seriously, froth organically rises to the top. Timing is impeccable. A scene at Joseph’s house is physical vaudeville. One at Charles’s home is visually clever and theatrically rowdy-a nice change. Vietor is not just imaginative, but original.
Original Music and Sound Design by Greg Pliska is, though ‘modern,’ amusing and on target. Andrea Lauer’s Costume Design and Charles G. LaPointe’s colorful Wig and Hair Design are inspired. Authentic period depiction paired with contemporary detail contributes immeasurably to winking mood and character. Anna Louizos’ stylized Set Design is painterly, eschewing competition with the costumes. Paneled, wallpapered walls effectively hide doors, windows and even a library offering charming surprises.
Photos by Carol Rosegg.
Opening: Dana Ivey, Frances Barber, Helen Cespedes
Red Bull Theater presents
The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Marc Vietor
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through May 8, 2016