May 8: The High Scene

I just saw this in the New York Times yesterday: "Deep in the third act of the Pearl Theater Company’s entertaining production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I realized how much the sitcom “Frasier” owes to Oscar Wilde."

First of all, I thought, "Breaking news!" But, more than that, there are plenty of influences on sitcoms -- "Fraiser" owes just as much to Noel Coward (it's funny that Ken Levine was complaining (a little bit) about how "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" had the same plot device as a Frasier he'd written when the plot device is also in "Private Lives"). And when they were doing "You Can't Take It With You" at the Geffen a couple of years ago the radio ads were touting it as the ancestor to the sitcom. And the first number of "The Spectator" also reminded me of a pilot, in the way we were assembling the wacky team.

All of which goes to show that there's nothing new under the sun (or, as Issac Bashevis Singer once said about this building, "Tolstoy never made an effort to be original"), and today we have a scene from The School For Scandal that, on some sitcoms, they would call the high scene -- the scene of maximum craziness. (It's almost shorter to read it than to summarize it, but it is summarized, in three paragraphs, here.) And, with one character hiding behind a screen and one character hiding in a closet, it seems timelessly wacky -- and, as they're all noblemen, there's even a whiff of the "boss is coming over for dinner" there, too. (What I'd really like to find is an 18th century masterpiece of the stage where two characters settle a dispute by painting a line down the middle of their flat. )

It reminds me so much of working on sitcoms that I am not surprised to find out that Sheridan kept rewriting the play -- of course you would, it's like tweaking the performance of your car or computer or any other machine. It's not actually funny to read, but you can see, in the right hands, where it might still get laughs, although I estimate that there is a 60% chance that the actors would overplay it, with disastrous results. There's something about costume drama that throws the timing off (cf. the gelatinous pacing of "John Adams."

My only note in this scene is, when the screen falls, revealing Lady Teazle (this is about line 191 in the Bartleby version), she doesn't have anything to say for a long time. That doesn't seem right -- even an "Odd's bodkins!" would be appropriate.

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