Tuesday, December 31, 2019

142 (2019-2020): Review: LONDON ASSURANCE (seen December 30, 2019)

"An Assured Production"

 It's a pleasure to report that my final review for 2019 is for a charming, five-star rendition of a mid-19th-century comedy, once the rage of London and New York, and now available in a polished rendition delectably directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It’s called London Assurance and was written in 1841 by the Irish-born Dion Boucicault, who was only 20 and would become one of the era’s most popular and prolific playwrights, with a booming, if scandal-riven, career on both sides of the pond.  (Theatre buffs can find more history at the end of this review.)  

London Assurance, which suggests a cross between the late-18th-century high comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The School for Scandal) and the late-Victorian ones of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), is not entirely a stranger to the modern New York stage. Once a late-19th-century stock company staple, it largely disappeared from local theatres until  a sparkling 1905 revival at the Knickerbocker Theatre provided British actress Ellis Jeffries a chance to score as the vibrant Lady Gay Spanker. 
Colin McPhillamy, Rachel Pickup. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
The next revival was in 1937, at the Vanderbilt Theatre, with musical interpolations, but it lasted only four performances. More successful was the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1974, directed by Ronald Eyre, with award-worthy performances by Elizabeth Spriggs as Lady Gay, Polly Adams as Grace Harkaway, and Donald Sinden as Sir Harcourt Courtly. And in 1997, the Roundabout produced the play, with Brian Bedford as Sir Harcourt and Helen Carey as Lady Gay. 
Rachel Pickup.
Lady Gay, “a devilish fine woman!,” is a part that—even though she doesn’t appear until act three of the five-act play—had enjoyed great popularity since first being seen here with the great Charlotte Cushman (better-known for tragedy than comedy), and afterward given memorable performances by such stars as Laura Keene, Ada Rehan, Fanny Davenport, and Rose Coghlan. At the Irish Rep, Rachel Pickup brings considerable verve and vivacity to the part of this enthusiastic horsewoman and huntress. 
Charlotte Cushman as Lady Gay Spanker in the 1841 New York production of London Assurance.
But London Assurance depends on colorful characterizations across the board, each of its 1l characters (in the current version) being jam-packed with comic opportunities of which this expert ensemble takes full advantage. Cool (Elliot Joseph) is the wiser-than-his-master valet (as per the ancient stage tradition), who serves Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy), pompous, fatuous, and vain (63, he insists he’s 40, and even rouges his cheeks). 
Brian Keane, Colin McPhillamy.
Sir Harcourt plans to marry the 19-year-old heiress, Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang, a star aborning), an arrangement that will net him 15,000 pounds a year. He’ll have to contend, however, with a rival in the form of his own wastrel son, Charles (Ian Holcomb, channeling a young Colin Firth), ripe for reform. Naturally, Sir Harcourt hasn't a clue about his son's late-night gambols.
Brian Keane, Caroline Strang, Rachel Pickup, Ian Holcomb, Craig Wesley Divino, Colin McPhillamy.
When Sir Harcourt meets the spirited Lady Gay, however, a woman married to the much older Adolphus Spanker (Robert Zukerman, deliciously doddering), his affections begin to shift. By this time, multiple complications have invaded the plot. These include the machinations of a n’er-do-well parasite called Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino, pointedly prankish), the conniving of a weaselly, avaricious lawyer named Meddle (Evan Zes, creepily ingratiating), the openhearted ministrations of Grace’s generous Uncle Max (Brian Keane, bringing on the gusto), and the manipulations of the comic maidservant, Pert (Meg Hennessy, like her character’s name).  
Robert Zukerman, Evan Zes.
Boucicault handles the mix-ups with considerable smoothness, taking full advantage of the contemporary fondness for asides that allow characters to address the audience with what’s really on their minds. His style mingles farcical situations with eloquent drawing-room phrasing, aphorisms both witty and wise, and thematically appropriate points about greed and vanity. Conventional as it is in such plays, there's also talk about the relative virtues of country versus city life. The complications are silly but even the outrageous notion that Sir Harcourt can be convinced that his own son is not his son but a dead ringer called Augustus Hamilton somehow clicks in this lighthearted environment.
Meg Hennessy, Caroline Strang.
It’s all very foolish, of course.  Nevertheless, when invested with the sprightly, British-accented manner affected here, especially that of McPhillamy’s marvelously posh Harcourt, broad yet rakishly droll, it’s a price we willingly pay to suspend our disbelief so we can laugh at the results.
Rachel Pickup, Colin McPhillamy.
As so often at the Irish Rep, the physical production is first-rate. This intimate theatre, with its small stage burdened by a thick supporting pillar to one side, manages time and again to overcome any technical obstacles and provide imaginative settings ranging from the grittily naturalistic to, as in London Assurance, exquisitely stylish ones. The only drawback is the lack of space when the entire cast appears, creating rather cramped tableaus.
Elliot Joseph, Evan Zes, Ian Holcomb, Brian Keane, Colin McPhillamy, Caroline Strang.
James Noone, using a checkerboard-patterned revolve, has managed to create several gorgeous representations of mansion-worthy rooms, perfectly lit by Michael Gottlieb. Similarly, Sara Jean Tosetti’s 19th-century costumes look as attractive and persuasively authentic, including striking boutonnieres on male lapels, as any you might see in a more heavily budgeted production. Ryan Rumery’s sound design (co-credited to M. Florian Staab) and original music offer the ideal fillip to the visual delights.
Evan Zes, Ian Holcomb. 
When London Assurance was first produced, at London’s Covent Garden, in March 1841, the playwright, who used a pseudonym, Lee Moreton, had appeared as an actor in Brighton but had not previously done anything in London. Boucicault is alleged to have bought the play's idea from American actor-playwright John Brougham. What he did with it was considered the finest new comedy in  years. The Covent Garden production, managed by the redoubtable Mme. Vestris, is said to have introduced the box set, offering a lifelike representation of the beautiful drawing rooms required.
Caroline Strang, Meg Hennessy, Rachel Pickup.
As George C. Odell says in Annals of the New York Stage, Vol. IV, “Staging was probably never again so shabby or so stereotyped in London or New York, after London Assurance had pointed the way to stage rooms which actually copied details of contemporary house-furnishings. . . . A room with three walls became, from that date, a necessity in fashionable playhouses; furthermore, this room must be luxuriously furnished in the latest mode.”
Brian Keane, Craig Wesley Divino.
Within months of its London opening, the play was produced in October at New York’s Park Theatre, where the box set idea was adopted. A review declared that the sets were “very splendid; the carpets, chandeliers, ottomans, windows, and looking-glasses were real . . . while the exterior views are so managed as to create a perfect illusion.”
Company of London Assurance.
Also revolutionary was the play’s three-week run, at a time when much briefer runs were normal. This, in fact, planted the seed of the long-run system. The Irish Rep’s run will be a bit longer but it is, of course, a limited one that closes at the end of January. Theatergoers are thereby notified that if they want to begin the New Year by catching this charming piece of 19th-century theatrical tomfoolery, their days are limited.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through January 26