Review by Edward Rubin, member of American Theatre Critics Association, NYC’s Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle; photos by Carol Rosegg
First things first. Before I delve into the Irish Repertory Theater’s marvelous production of London Assurance by Dublin-born playwright Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) – extended now through Sunday, February 9 – I must say that the award-winning Irish Rep is a gift from heaven.
Their choices of what to produce coupled with the actors they choose to cast is simply and consistently wonderful. And this wonderfulness goes for their use of top-of-the-line, set, costume, lighting, sound, and hair and wig designers for each play. Each and every production is a joyous event. I have never left either of their two intimate theaters without having been put in touch with my own humanity, be it tears or laughter or both.
Or for that matter being enlarged as a human being.
No doubt this touching of one’s heartstrings is an Irish thing, a deeply ingrained trait, if you will. For those questioning such gushing: No! this is not a paid advertisement. It is a fact!
First produced in Covent Garden in 1841, when Boucicault was 21, London Assurance is a farcical comedy of manners, this time directed by Charlotte Moore, and is the cleverest and most enjoyable play to open this year.
Boucicault’s style is an introduction of words to each other that have never before made acquaintance and that think that they will not get on together. It is ingeniously ear-opening. Though the playwright’s embroidery of language, hand-tailored with much thought and observation on culture and class, fits each character like a glove, it is in each actor’s letter-perfect delivery where the fireworks reside.
The premise of the play revolves around the 60-something Sir Harcourt Courtly’s (Colin McPhillamy) impending engagement to 18-year old Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang), a young girl some 40-plus years his junior. It seems that her dead father’s will stipulated, inexplicably, that if she refuses to marry Harcourt, the estate goes to Harcourt’s son Charles (Ian Holcomb). If Grace does marry him, something she has already resigned herself to, her formidable dowry, as well as her life, becomes the property of Harcourt. In short, as both parties frequently comment on, it is an arranged marriage based on economics.
As Harcourt tells it, he has seen her “banker’s account” and looks forward to the 15,000 pounds annually that this marriage will give him. As for the ever rationalizing and pragmatic Grace: adding a whiff of hope to her situation, she states that the “gentleman swears eternal devotion to the lady’s fortune, and the lady swears she will outlive him still.”
Sir Harcourt’s character is brilliantly played to a fare thee well by McPhillamy with delicious eye-popping double-takes, physical and facial contortions and abrupt changes of mind. While his portrayal elicits the most laughter, every character has their own hilarious star turn.
The play begins at the London home of Harcourt with light banter between Harcourt’s tipsy son and a newly found friend Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino), who brings him home from a night on the town. Small talk about marriage takes place between them and Harcourt’s friend, Grace’s Uncle Max Harkaway (Brian Keane). Also, on stage is the annoying presence of Mark Meddle (Evan Zes), a slimy and devious, non-stop talking lawyer, eager to make a fast buck by selling information he claims to know. With conversation at a lull, everybody leaves for Harkaway’s country estate to get the engagement underway.
It is here at Oak Hall, amidst an amazingly detailed set (James Noone) and fabulous period costumes (Sara Jean Tosetti) which gently bring us back in time, that we first meet the lovely Grace, Harcourt’s intended, and the lusty, uber-wonderful breath of fresh air, Lady Gay Spanker (Rachel Pickup), who actually carries a whip. Her equally wonderful and all-accepting – and possibly gay – husband Adolphus Spanker (Robert Zukerman) follows her around like a puppy. In no time at all, with a good deal of double-dealing intrigue, spying on each other, clever repartee and audience-delivered asides, all hell breaks loose.
Harcourt falls in with Lady Gay. Grace and Harcourt Jr fall in love, and the shifty-eyed Meddle, eager to fill his pockets any way he can, attempts to blackmail just everybody in sight. All I can say is watching the unraveling and reweaving of everybody’s life, is a satisfying hoot, one that had the audience, myself included, leaving the theater with a big smile on our faces.
Technical: Scenic Design: James Noone, Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti, Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb, Sound Design: M. Florian Staab, Sound Design and Original Music: Ryan Rumery, Properties: Sven Henry Nelson, Hair & Wigs: Robert-Charles Vallance
London Assurance opened on December 15, 2019 at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City at 132 West 22nd Street. It closes on Sunday, February 9, 2020. Playwright: Dion Boucicault, Director: Charlotte Moore. 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. For more information, or to buy tickets click on irishrep.org or call 866-811-4111.