LA JOLLA — Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote two 18th century comedies, "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal," that probably will be reproduced as long as there are theaters. By contrast, "Sheridan: Or, Schooled in Scandal," David Grimm's new play about the man's post-playwriting years, probably won't see much life beyond August.
The production at the Mandell Weiss Theater has a cast of 12, with extensive costuming and elaborate sets, so it's clearly costly to present. Its biggest handicap, however, is Grimm's muddled script. On a thin frame of fact, including an apparent friendship between the 60-ish Sheridan and twentysomething poet Lord Byron, Grimm seeks to construct a darkly comic view of the politics and scandals of the times, with ironic parallels to the present. The dark part, he manages. As for the rest, well. . . .
Grimm depicts the aging Sheridan, with some historical justification, as a drunken lech, a procurer for the Prince of Wales and an unprincipled, if respected, member of Parliament. Around him, Grimm weaves actual figures into a tapestry of political intrigue. Byron is blackmailed by the Duchess of Devonshire into helping her destroy the new romance of the Prince of Wales, who had spurned her. Byron, in cooperating, betrays the trust of Sheridan, who's tight with the Prince. Meanwhile, Prime Minister William Pitt is using pressure and duplicity to achieve his political goals, and he subverts a long and strong friendship between Sheridan and fellow MP Charles Fox.
A despondent Sheridan, barely ahead of his creditors, loses everything when his Drury Lane Theater burns. Then Byron winds up on trial, and Pitt needs Sheridan as the condemning witness. It all trickles to a weak ending, as predictable as it is improbable.
Grimm shows a talent for epigrams ("Morality is envy, thinly disguised") and makes points about government oppression and intrusion into personal lives. But fresh insights are few, and most of the characters flatten into caricature.
His attempts to lighten the heavy proceedings often look like plug-ins because they switch the tone so abruptly. The worst example is a farcical scene in which Sheridan, trying to help the Prince get secretly married, brings in a priest. The man is a compendium of cliches--alcoholic, pedophilic and Irish--who winds up half-dressed and babbling. The result, with little verbal or physical cleverness, is neither satire nor burlesque--just distasteful.
Director Mark Brokaw does what he can to enliven matters, often using the style of Sheridan's Restoration comedies, and has elicited convincing performances from most in the cast. On Sunday, Sherman Howard, as Sheridan, occasionally slipped from his Irish accent but generally handled the yeoman task of being on stage for much of the play's three hours. Jeremy Shamos was a sympathetic Lord Byron, Francesca Faridany was spunky and supportive in dual roles as Sheridan's present lover and his late wife, and Charles Janasz managed to give some soft edges to Pitt's hard villainy.
Mark Wendland's set, featuring brick walls, planked floors and a movable crosswalk, is eminently versatile; Annie Smart provides authentic period costumes (although the decolletage is not flattering to the duchess); and Mark McCullough's lighting creates a brilliant storm and fire, enhanced by John Gromada's sounds.
* "Sheridan: Or, Schooled in Scandal," Mandell Weiss Theater, UCSD campus, San Diego. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 20. $19-$39. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.