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London Assurance

Theatre Review by David Hurst - December 15, 2019

Brian Keane, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Ian Holcomb,
Craig Wesley Divino, and Colin McPhillamy

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Before Noël Coward's Private Lives and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, there was Dion Boucicault's London Assurance, a rollicking farce from 1841 filled with tart observations about love and vanity. As a yuletide gift to New York, London Assurance is being given a delicious revival courtesy of the indispensable Irish Repertory Theatre. Directed with a light touch by the Rep's Artistic Director Charlotte Moore, this London Assurance is a tasty affair where social satire is secondary to laughter.

Other than the NTLive! presentation of Nicholas Hynter's revival starring Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw at the National in London in 2010, the last production of London Assurance seen here in New York was Joe Dowling's glorious staging at the Roundabout in 1997 starring the late, great Brian Bedford and the divine Helen Carey. The Roundabout's production nabbed Tony nominations for Bedford, Carey and Best Revival of a Play, and with good reason. Though the Irish Rep's revival doesn't have the marquee names (or the budgets!) of the National or the Roundabout, the cast is solidly impressive and its jaw-dropping sets by James Noone and sumptuous costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti are lavish by the Rep's standards.

The plot is simple and only amplifies the hilarious names of Boucicault's characters. The vainglorious Sir Harcourt Courtly (a terrific Colin McPhillamy), who is 63 but only admits to 39, is lured away from the epicenter of fashionable London by the promise of a rich and beautiful bride, 18-year old Grace Harkaway (the lovely and feisty Caroline Strang), who lives with her uncle, the robust sportsman Max Harkaway (Brian Keane, wonderful), and her maid Pert (a sassy Meg Hennessy) at Oak Hall in Gloucestershire. Sir Courtly, with his trusty valet Cool (a diplomatic Elliot Joseph) in tow, travels from his home in Belgrave Square to Oak Hall to meet his young intended, unaware that his son, the 25-year old Charles (the handsome Ian Holcomb), is already in residence there with a recent acquaintance, Richard Dazzle (a diabolical Craig Wesley Divino). Though his father thinks him the embodiment of virtue, Charles is really a drunken roustabout who has accepted the invitation to Oak Hall to escape a slew of London creditors. For his part, Dazzle is a mercenary schemer who's always ready to accept free food, wine, and lodging in return for being, well, dazzling.

Colin McPhillamy and Rachel Pickup
Photo by Carol Rosegg
In the two days he's been there, Charles has fallen head over heels in love with Grace but, upon learning his father has arrived at Oak Hall, he concocts a plan with Dazzle to assume the false identity of Augustus Hamilton—a man who just happens to look exactly like Charles Courtly. When Sir Courtly meets Grace, he's enchanted. Or at least he's enchanted until he meets Grace's cousin, Lady Gay Spanker (the hilarious Rachel Pickup), a foxhunting horsewoman who bewitches Sir Courtly with her vivacity and lust for life the moment he meets her. The fact that Lady Gay is married to Adolphus "Dolly" Spanker (Robert Zuckerman, unleashed) is no impediment to Sir Courtly's ardor-filled attentions. In short, comedy ensues when Lady Gay agrees to a scheme with Charles and Dazzle to fool Sir Courtly. Throw in a meddling attorney, Mark Meddle (a smarmy Evan Zes), stirring up trouble wherever and whenever he can and you have all the elements of a classic farce.

To be sure, Boucicault's comedy isn't a masterpiece, but it's silly fun, especially with a cast that's having a good time, which the Rep's company certainly is. And although the production could use a little tightening, particularly with the way the characters deliver their "asides" to the audience, this London Assurance is a holiday treat the whole family can enjoy.

London Assurance
Through January 26, 2020
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: OvationTix