Colin McPhillamy, Elliot Joseph, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Robert Zuckerman, Evan Zes, Meg Hennessy, Brian Keane, and Ian Holcomb Photo By Carol Rosegg
Rest assured! London Assurance, a rare revival of the 1841 comedy by Dion Boucicault now playing at the Irish Rep, is an absolute delight. Two and a half hours of delicious mayhem fly by before you can stop laughing, in this superlative production under Artistic Director Charlotte Moore. Her intimate stage bursts with comic energy and brilliant performances by the entire company.
Between Shakespeare and Shaw there were some three centuries of English theater filled with hundreds of plays. Boucicault himself wrote 150 of them! But few of them merit revival today. This is one of them.
In the late 1770’s, our Revolutionary period and England’s Georgian period, we get language that starts to resemble our own, and comedies with witty jokes, some of which could be dropped directly into our favorite TV shows today. But you can count on one hand the comedies which get revived today from the 18th and 19th centuries. The ones that stand out were written by three fellow Irishmen, all literary antecedents of Boucicoult, living in England.
Oliver Goldsmith’s 1771 play, She Stoops to Conquer, is a witty play with comic plotting to win a lover by deception which may have inspired Boucicoult’s leading lady in London Assurance.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote brilliant social satire, but with the heart of a romantic. His two great comedies, The Rivals and The School for Scandal, both from the late 1770’s, along with Goldsmith’s, are the only plays from that period which get revived regularly.
A hundred years after Sheridan, we get the works of Oscar Wilde, whose acerbic wit is a direct descendant of Sheridan’s social sensibility. Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest would not exist without Mrs. Candour in The School for Scandal. Similarly, the May/December relationships in London Assurance seem to owe something to Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, although Boucicault cleverly inverts their dynamics.
Of all those early 19th century plays, London Assurance is the only one that gets regularly revived. Maybe that’s because it’s pure 19th century sitcom, giving us the outsized characters of the day in outrageous situations. It may lack the biting political and social commentary which informed the works of Sheridan and Wilde. But no matter. Fun is fun, and this production is chock full of it.
Like the acting companies of its day, this play is an ensemble work stuffed with scene-chewing characters. They interact in a fun house plot driven by improbably mistaken identities and crazy scheming. There isn’t a whole lot of psychological complexity, and the preposterous situations often require asides from the characters to explain their intentions. That’s not a bad thing, however, as the connection that forms by talking directly to the audience was that period’s equivalent of today’s immersive theater experience.
At the center of the storm is Sir Harcourt Courtly, a 63 year old man who thinks he is going on 40, and is proven otherwise. His vanity and self-deception are rendered in portly perfection by Colin McPhillamy. Not to diminish his unique talents, but if you remember the comic actor, Robert Morley, Mr. McPhillamy will evoke happy memories of his person and style. No production of this play can succeed without a preposterous peacock at its center, and Mr. McPhillamy shows all his feathered colors brilliantly.
In his delusion of youthful appeal, Sir Harcourt plans to marry an 18 y.o. girl, Grace Harkaway, played by the delicious Caroline Strang. This egghead ingénue must occasionally pout like a child, yet be wise enough to see through deception and plot her own success. Ms. Strang’s performance is replete with adoreable charm, endearing vivaciousness, and every comic nuance that this role that it demands.
The plot is set in motion by Mr. Dazzle, played by with rakish style by Craig Wesley Divino. Dazzle is an Irish grifter masquerading as an English gentleman, who weazles his way into everybody’s house by claiming some relationship to them. The character is a Scapin-esque trickster, whose plans are the one really fuzzy plot element. He never seems to be working at profiting from his freeloading. He is more of a device for Boucicault to assure the movement of the story around him. But no matter. In Mr. Divino’s charming hands, he is an entertaining ringmaster whenever he chooses to be.
Grace lives with her uncle, Max Harkaway, in their Oak Hall, Gloustershire home. Max is a barrel chested, hunt loving, outdoorsy neighbor, played with appropriate vigor and warmth by Brian Keane. He arranges the marriage of economic convenience between Grace and Sir Harcourt, then invites Sir Harcourt down to Oak Hall to meet his bride to be. Mr. Dazzle, however, manages to insinuate himself with both, and gets himself invited down as well.
Sir Harcourt has a wastral son, Charles, earnestly played by Ian Holcolm. The reformation of this Charles is, somewhat surprisingly, not an issue, as is that of the young rake, Charles Surface, in The School for Scandal. The slim writing is fleshed out well, however, by Mr. Holcolm’s forthright persona.
Charles arrives at Oak Hall with Dazzle before his father does. There he gets to meet Grace, the young girl who is to become his “mother,” with whom he falls in love at first sight. In order to continue to pursue Grace when his father arrives, he pretends to be a “Mr. Hamilton”, who just looks an awful lot like Charles. When Sir Harcourt arrives, Charles must then convince his father that he’s not really his son, but someone who closely resembles him. This is a ruse which we, and the characters onstage, must accept because the play demands that we do, as hard to swallow as it may be. This leads to “Mr. Hamilton” trying to court Grace behind his father’s back. Grace sees through his disguise, and sets out to teach him a lesson in honest loving which complicates matters further. Sound outlandish? Well, it is. But in the hands of this finely tuned acting company, you just go along for the crazy ride.
The Harkaways’ neighbor is the sporty huntress and liberated wife, Lady Gay Spanker. You have no doubt she knows just how to use that riding crop she carries! Rachel Pickup as Gay is a beautiful bundle of effervescence and wit. Gay is married to a loveable but doddering old man, Adolphus Spanker, played with perfectly befuddled and married misery by Robert Zukerman. In order to free Grace from her commitment to marry Sir Harcourt, Gay is enlisted to deflect Harcourt’s romatic attentions to herself. But that leads to more comic complications.
Other confederates in this delightful nonsense are Charles’s valet, Cool, played by Elliot Joseph with a wonderfully dry style that reminded me of Tony Robinson as Baldrick in the Black Adder series. As Grace’s maidservant and companion, Pert, young Irish firebrand Meg Hennessey brings tremendous spirit and fetching personality to the stage. I really look forward to seeing her do more, here and elsewhere.
Last but not least is Evan Zes as the scheming lawyer, Mark Meddle, who is a perpetual fly in the ointment. His rubber faced scoundrel hides around the stage and pops up like targets in a shooting gallery.
The design is another star in this show. The Irish Rep space is made to seem twice its size by the mobile and ingenious set by James Noone, with fine lighting by Michael Gottleib, and lovely costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti.
All of these elements are used brilliantly by Ms. Moore. She keeps the large company in motion with well planned business and focused attention, all of which enriches the character interactions she shapes so tastefully.
I have enjoyed many fine productions at the Irish Rep, but perhaps none as much as this one. You will be lucky to get a ticket, even if it gets extended, as I hope it will. If you are at all weary of certain contemporary theater – not to mention, most of the news every night on TV – being filled with vulgarity, profanity and negativity, escape from the weary world into this sparkling antidote to the winter blues.