When Dion Boucicault wrote his 1841 play, “London Assurance,” he called it a “modern comedy.” But its form, which owes a debt to 18th-century comedies of manners, was deliberately regressive, its plot as familiar and creaky as a horse-drawn wagon. Even in the early Victorian era, this mild romp was an antique. The Irish Repertory Theater’s current revival, however deft and cheerful, does not increase its value.
The plot, pilfered from laughing comedies, is a story of love and real estate. Because of a peculiar will that should appall any trusts and estates lawyers in the audience, young Grace Harkaway (Caroline Strang) must either marry the 60-something Sir Harcourt Courtly (Colin McPhillamy) or see all her income and property go to his heir, Charles Courtly (Ian Holcomb). Grace seems resigned to her May-December fate, but complications arise like a lurching hot air balloon when Grace meets a disguised Charles, and Sir Harcourt falls for the irrepressible and very married Lady Gay Spanker (Rachel Pickup).
A prolific Irish dramatist who would go on to write upward of 150 plays and adaptations, Boucicault has found a supportive, pocket-size home at the Irish Rep, which has previously staged a pair of his Irish plays, “The Shaughraun” and “The Colleen Bawn,” and one of his melodramas, “The Streets of New York.” “London Assurance,” written when he was just 20, was his second play and his first success. (“A Legend of the Devil’s Dyke” was his first.)
“London Assurance” has occasional wit and a tidy resolution. It endures on the fringes of the repertory as a display cabinet for comic actors, and a few of the roles, like Lady Gay — “glee made a living thing,” as one character describes her — must be bliss to play. But it is as artificial as a plastic topiary, and the farce feels underpowered, like a pillow fight waged with very small pillows. Besides, some of the jokes are flat-out awful, like Charles Courtly’s argument with Meddle (Evan Zes), an attorney:
Charles: Well, Muddle, or Puddle or whoever you are, you are a bore.
Meddle: Miss Pert said I was a pig; now I’m a boar! There goes the whole hog!
The Irish Rep’s style of revival — well-upholstered, respectful, with little social or political slant — is part of the problem. The director, Charlotte Moore, ever capable, has streamlined “London Assurance” and eliminated a couple of characters. But she hasn’t nudged the play toward relevance, and it isn’t funny or distinctive enough to stand on its own feet, however nicely shod. (Comparisons backward, toward George Farquhar and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, or forward, toward Oscar Wilde, don’t flatter.)
This being the Irish Rep, there are, of course, pleasures to be had. Like the set designer James Noone’s nimble use of the petite stage and Sarah Jean Tosetti’s flounce-forward costumes. The company has always been rich in skilled comedians, and it has a panoply here, like Pickup, with her exuberant Lady Gay, Robert Zukerman, as her blinkered husband, Adolphus, and McPhillamy as the deluded Harcourt.
After “London Assurance,” Boucicault evolved into a thoroughly modern writer. He went to France, discovered melodrama and forged an uncanny ability to transmute the language and events of his day — scandals, disasters, new technologies — into playable, rousing theater. (Some doesn’t hold up, like his slavery-equivocal “The Octoroon,” but a lot does.) He became almost impossibly up-to-date. If a mature Boucicault came to New York today, what would he make of our manners now?
London Assurance Through Jan. 26 at the Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
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