Theater Review: ‘London Assurance’: A Slow Build in This 19th-Century Farce

NEW YORK—The sin of pride leads to more than a few comeuppances in Dion Boucicault’s 19th-century farce “London Assurance.” This chestnut of a show is currently being revived by the Irish Repertory Theatre.

In 1841 London, the wealthy and widowed Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy) is a poster boy for denial. With thinning hair, being somewhat corpulent in stature, and 63 years of age, he nonetheless sees himself as an attractive ladies’ man; he does not admit to being over the age of 40 “next March.” This is despite the fact that he has a 25-year-old son, Charles (Ian Holcomb), who supposedly is a quiet and studious sort.

Sir Harcourt is preparing to marry 18-year-old Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang). This marriage of financial convenience has been long since arranged. The reserved Grace, who lives with her uncle Max (Brian Keane) on his estate in Gloucestershire, has no compunctions about such a union. She’s never embraced the idea of love, and thus reasons that one man is just as good as another.

It soon becomes obvious that Charles Courtly is not nearly as innocent as his father believes. Charles enthusiastically partakes in nightly rituals of drinking and carousing and runs up massive debts in the process. In an attempt to avoid his creditors, Charles gets himself invited to Max’s estate, under an assumed name and accompanied by his new friend Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino).

Upon arriving in Gloucestershire, Charles finds himself falling madly in love with Grace. To her extreme surprise, she realizes that she likewise has romantic feelings for him.

Sir Harcourt notices none of this, as he has become enamored with Lady Gay Spanker (Rachel Pickup), a vivacious and emancipated 40-something woman married to a much older man (Robert Zukerman), who seemingly acquiesces to his wife’s every whim.

Wrapped in a story showcasing a battle between the sexes, “London Assurance” presents a warning about the dangers of pride. Everyone believes that he or she has the upper moral hand, and with a certainty of knowing what is best for everyone else. Thanks to eavesdropping, miscommunication, or overblown self-importance, each finds his or her plans for love, sexual conquest, or sheer freedom repeatedly stymied.

In the case of Charles and Grace, Charles thinks that he has the upper hand and knows what’s best, but since Grace overhears his musings on the matter, she’s a step ahead of him all the way.

Lady Gay has a habit of charging into everything full throttle, which causes her to cross a line that her normally obliging husband, thanks to Max’s urging, will not tolerate. She then finds herself being given an out that would seemingly solve everything. Only, it may be a solution that neither Lady Gay nor her husband wants.

Boucicault’s text is filled with biting comments, many having to do with one’s attitude or appearance, all of which the cast takes great delight in delivering; for example: “Plain people always praise the beauties of the mind.” McPhillamy and Keane in particular have fun with this back-and-forth interplay.

The author also takes potshots at the legal profession, via the character of lawyer Mark Meddle (Evan Zes in a wonderful scenery-chewing performance). The character is always looking for a legal angle so as to secure a case and thus earn himself a hefty fee.

Despite plenty of fun, for a farce to work, it needs to be played at a frenetic pace—but that’s not always the case here. Especially in the early going, the delivery of plot exposition and character introductions—more laborious than rapid-fire—slows things down. The pacing does improve as things progress, helped tremendously by the addition of characters and the unfolding comic situations.

The Performances

McPhillamy is particularly effective as Sir Harcourt. To bring the self-assured fool that is his character to life, the actor gleefully mugs his way through the role.

Divino has a ball as Dazzle, a person who verbally runs over anyone who gets in his way. Exactly who this man is becomes a running gag throughout, as well as a commentary on how easy it is to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. All one apparently needs are the proper clothes and the right attitude.

Pickup is a hoot at Lady Gay. The actress plays the character at 100 miles an hour, no matter the circumstances. And Zukerman is hilarious as her husband, a fellow who finally puts his foot down, only to learn that what’s supposedly right for others is not necessarily right for him.

Holcomb and Strang are fine as the young lovers, though there doesn’t seem to be much chemistry between them.

James Noone’s sets of the Courtly and Harkaway residences are nicely done, and the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti all work well.

“London Assurance”—the title a reference to a line in the play regarding overconfidence—is a very entertaining effort. It may not always work as well as it should, but most will leave the theater with smiles on their faces.

‘London Assurance’
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W 22nd St, New York
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or IrishRep.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Feb. 9

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.

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