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Theatre in Review: London Assurance (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Before he became one of the most successful playwrights of the nineteenth century, Dion Boucicault studied to be a civil engineer; in London Assurance, his experience shows. A titan during the heyday of the well-made play, he was an architect of dramatic contraptions populated by characters who are little more than cogs in the plot machinery. London Assurance is a perfect whirligig of complications, all of them neatly tidied up, in time for the final curtain, by a playwright more interested in symmetry than reality. It's an impressive achievement in its way, and Charlotte Moore's new production has its pearly moments, but unless you have a high tolerance for this sort of artifice, your goodwill may be stretched thin before the inevitable happy ending arrives.

I've seen this 1841 comedy twice -- previously in a 1997 Broadway revival -- and my experience has been consistent: When the stage is occupied by the characters of Sir Harcourt Courtly, an aging fop and self-described "index of fashion," and/or Lady Gay Spanker, the alarmingly hearty, designing noblewoman, amusement is at hand. In the current production, Colin McPhillamy's Harcourt is a Casanova on his last legs, the august ruin of an aging fop, still preening after all these years. ("Am I too florid?" he wonders, critically peering into a mirror and failing to notice the patches of rouge creeping around the edges of his face.) The mention of his advanced age sends him into a rage, followed by a demonstration of his "elasticity of limb." ("Permit me to remark that all the beauties of my person are of home manufacture," he adds.) Despite his lordly manner, however, his intentions are entirely mercenary. Grace Harkaway, his much younger intended ("an heiress and a Venus"), is a stranger to him; his true interest is in her income of fifteen thousand pounds a year. Nevertheless, his fortune-hunting ways don't prevent him -- thanks to his vanity and cupidity -- from becoming entangled in any number of mortifying situations, including a thwarted elopement that threatens to make him the laughingstock of London's smart set.

McPhillamy's prime playmate in this contrived nonsense is Rachel Pickup as Lady Gay: She doesn't so much enter a room as take possession of it, playfully applying her riding crop to a recalcitrant male and trailing her superannuated spouse, whose beard she strokes in the manner of one soothing an obstreperous cat. ("I have a husband somewhere," she says at one point, as if the poor man might have wandered off the premises.) Beaming with enough goodwill to make strong men tremble, she joins in a game of romantic intrigue while variously nibbling on an apple, a carrot, and some fruit salad; also takes a big bite out of the scenery, however delightfully. Note how gleefully she enters into the business of seeming to seduce Harcourt: "Have your carriage in waiting, and four horses," she counsels him, while pretending to plan their getaway. "Remember please, be particular to have four; don't let the affair come off shabbily." The personification of vivacity poised on the edge of lunacy, Pickup makes Lady Gay the inescapable center of attention in each of her scenes.

There are, from time to time, other charming things in London Assurance, but they tend to be dragged down by a plot shaped entirely by the potboiler conventions of its time. It hinges on one of those bizarrely arbitrary wills that make life so difficult for people in Victorian-era entertainments: In this case, if Grace, reaching the age of nineteen, agrees to marry Harcourt, her fortune and property will accrue to him; if she turns him down, it all goes to Harcourt's heir apparent. (I can't bring myself to explain the reasons behind this; they hardly bother anyone in the play.) The fellow in the latter case would be Charles, Harcourt's wastrel son. (He supposes his boy is studious and obedient; in this, as in so many other things, he is riotously misinformed.) For reasons that do not bear examination, Charles ends up at Grace's estate and they fall instantly in love -- which is where Lady Gay comes in. Once the games begin, the characters reposition themselves so thoroughly with each twist that they lose any connection to humanity, and the satire of a society in which romance is subordinated to merger-like arrangements ("Marriage matters are conducted nowadays in a most mercantile manner," notes Grace) thins out noticeably. Even with some tasty character flourishes, the action threatens to become tiresome.

Moore's production puts a gifted company through its paces, with mixed results. As Charles, Ian Holcomb amuses with his drunken pronunciation of "originality," adding several syllables to the regular lineup; he also pulls off the nearly impossible business of pretending, without benefit of makeup or a change in dress, to be a total stranger to Harcourt. Charles' pained, halting wooing of Grace is neatly done, too, but Caroline Strang -- an actress of piercing intelligence -- hasn't quite found the satirical spin that would make Grace both an adorable love interest and a canny observer of the marital brokering going on around her. (I look forward to seeing her again, however.) Other notables include Elliot Joseph as a manservant who functions as a herald, delivering the latest exposition; Craig Wesley Divino as a professional houseguest; Robert Zukerman, alternately snapping and doddering as Lady Gay's bewildered husband; and Meg Hennessy as a maid who isn't afraid to curl up on the sofa and watch the schemes play out.

Other assets include James Noone's scenery, its turntable reliably delivering new arrangements of furniture for intriguers to hide behind, and Sara Jean Tosetti's elaborate period finery. (Check out Harcourt's glittery scarf and feathered brooch.) Michael Gottlieb provides several typically solid lighting looks and Ryan Rumery delivers a bevy of sound effects including horse-drawn wagons, servants' bells, birdsong, and hunting horns, in addition to harpsichord-driven incidental music.

It's likely that, thanks to a pair of leads who go about their foolish business with hammer-and-tongs enjoyment, this London Assurance will pass muster as a cold winter evening's entertainment. Fair enough but, with all that wearying plot, enchantment isn't in the cards. -- David Barbour

(2 January 2020)

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