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|A CurtainUp Review
I should preface this review with the caveat that I'm not mad about the type of drawing room farces that hinge on righting misunderstandings and miscouplings after much confusion and witty banter. This caveat does have its exceptions.
I like anything by Oscar Wilde. Even lesser farces often offer such terrific opportunities for actors to strut their stuff and directors to show their virtuosity at orchestrating a sizeable ensemble that I'm always ready to be swayed by a particularly stylish and well-acted production. Finally, I do get a big kick out of the outrageously descriptive names often given to the characters. Still, whenever I let the exceptions sway my natural tendency to resist, I always find enough slow spots in the general silliness, to make the evening a less-than-perfect delight. London Assurance, now rounding out the second stage's season at the Roundabout has not totally converted me. It's a far cry from being a theatrical masterpiece. It has its slow moments. But, it also proves itself to be a 3-strike exception to my caveat. Let me count the ways. . .
Dion L. Boucicault's play has its share of Wildean bon mots. Lady Spanker's include "Man is a creature of the hour--the dinner hour, I suppose" and "I married him for my freedom and he married me for protection." My favorite from Lord Courtley is "Hesitation destroys the romance of a faux pas and reduces it to the level of a mere mercantile calculation." On the overall though the dialogue is not on a par with Wilde, which is to be expected when you consider that the playwright was only twenty-one when he wrote it.
The production given the play by the Roundabout is certainly stylish enough and better than well-acted by every member of the cast. While very much an ensemble production, it's also a star vehicle for the remarkable Brian Bedford. In fact he seems to be having such a good time playing the foppish central character to the very hilt, that his enjoyment spreads to the audience like a contagious disease. Just looking at his aging effete, gets your laughing pulse going-- his wizened cheeks blotchy with rouge, sporting a ridiculous shoe-polish black wig--the very image of an arthritic, kvetchy caricature of the self-image only his mirror reveals.
As for descriptive names, I can't think of a more hilariously on-target line-up than these denizens of London and Gloucestershire circa 1841. Heading the list is of course Sir Harcourt Courtly (Brian Bedford) who's self-deluded enough to think he can pass for the age forty he'd like to be instead of the sixty-three he looks. To feed his delusions there's Cool (John Horton) the valet, whose demeanor more closely matches his name than his declarations of vexation. To keep the farcial brew of misconception, misunderstanding and false identities bubbling there's a cheery horsewoman (carried off to perfection by Helen Carey), a dazzlingly quick-with-the-alibi opportunistic wastrel friend Richard Dazzle ( dazzingly played by young Christopher Evan Welch who earlier in the season distinguished himself as Bill Irwin's sidekick in Scapin) and a "carriage-chasing" lawyer named Mark Meddle (John Christopher Jones). The amusing name game extends to the most minor characters, like the fluttery young maid, Pert (Rita Pietropinto). Even the play's title is a clever bit of word play when you consider that the dictionary defines "asurance" as a positive declaration of confidence, a pledge and also self-confidence.
Joe Dowling firmly moves the senior Courtly, his dissolute son, (Rainn Wilson), the Harkaways (David Schramm as Max and Kathryn Meisele as Grace), and the Spankers (Ken Jennings as Lady Gay's husband) and the assorted other character through the farcial maze. Derek McLane 's set is elegant, (three sets actually: Sir Courtley's ante-room in Belgravia, the lawn before a fine Elizabethean mansion outside London as well as its drawing room). Catherine Zuber's costumes are beautiful and often hilarious. Sir Courtley's vision-in-pink entrance outfit is one example and his giving Lady Gay a plain mask and himself a glittery gold one makes for a priceless and apt bit of accessorizing . Clearly this London Assurance is one even one who's not a farce fan can recommend with considerable assurance (hard to resist that last!).