Does the plot really need to make sense for us to have a good time at the theater? Dion Boucicault's London Assurance puts that question to the test, with mixed results in this latest revival. The frothy 1841 comedy is given a gorgeously designed production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, and it benefits from one performance in particular.
It's about Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy), an aging Mayfair playboy set to marry 18-year-old Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang) by special provision of her dead father's will: If she marries Harcourt, he gets the entire estate as a dowry; if she refuses, the estate goes to Harcourt's son, Charles (Ian Holcomb), and Grace gets to be poor (this is the patriarchy's version of "heads I win, tails you lose"). They all go up to Oak Hall, the country estate of Grace's uncle Max (Brian Keane), to get the engagement underway.
But complications arise when Grace is more attracted to Charles, who is inexplicably masquerading as a man named Augustus Hamilton (Holcomb indicates this character shift by pulling off a pair of glasses like he's Clark Kent). Adding to the hijinks are zany characters like the Irish grifter Richard Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino), the oily lawyer Mark Meddle (Evan Zes), and a lusty aristocrat named Lady Gay Spanker (Rachel Pickup zestfully wielding a riding crop). Plenty of farcical encounters ensue, many with only a tenuous relationship to the central plot.
Boucicault (1820-1890) was one of the most successful theater-makers of his era. Companies now rarely produce his work, which is judged as outdated and overwrought (imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber in 100 years). London Assurance is a major exception for a specific reason: Those who were around in 1997 might remember the Broadway revival starring Brian Bedford as Sir Harcourt (Simon Russell Beale took on Harcourt in the 2010 London revival).
The Victorian version of the old guy trying to pick up chicks at the singles bar, Harcourt is the plum role of this piece, and McPhillamy plumbs it for all it's worth in a memorable performance. He keeps us in stitches with his intuitive delivery, surprisingly graceful physicality, and ridiculous visual presentation. A curl of hair meanders over his skull like a mountain pass, leading to the valley of his rouged cheeks. On his romantic conquest of Lady Spanker, he muses, "This is an unprecedented example of the irresistible force of personal appearance combined with polished address." We can't help but laugh at his delusion.
There are other fine performances: Robert Zukerman is very funny as Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay's befuddled husband. And Strang keeps us grinning with her well-timed side-eye. Of all the characters, Grace feels the most believably human.
Unfortunately, the actors are left to sink or swim under Charlotte Moore's hands-off direction of the performances, some of which feel like they belong in another play. Still, Moore has marshaled the design team for a visually striking production: James Noone's turntable set allows for town and country settings while suggesting the depth of interior hallways. A central flat goes away for the second act, revealing a handsome parlor full of richly upholstered furniture and heavy draperies — meaning plenty of flimsy hiding places for eavesdropping (a favorite pastime in England, if Boucicault is to be believed).
Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes compete with McPhillamy as the star attraction: Feathered boutonnieres, knee-high boots, and bell-shaped dresses come together to create an eye-popping fantasia on the fashion of the 1840s. It looks lovely under Michael Gottlieb's attractive lighting, while M. Florian Staab's 360-degree sound design suggests action in locations just offstage and behind the audience. The intimate house of the Irish Rep feels very much a part of the action.
What that action is and why we should care about it, however, is not always so clear, making it easy to understand why London Assurance rarely comes around these parts anymore. The language is not as consistently sparkling as that found in the comedies Oscar Wilde penned 50 years later, which are still widely produced despite having similarly contrived plots. London Assurance remains mostly a showcase for the comic genius of the character actor in the role of Sir Harcourt, so Irish Rep audiences should be delighted that McPhillamy has plenty of brilliance to share.