As any well-versed theatergoer can attest, farce is an artform that must be handled with unusual precision to achieve its main goal: uproarious laughter. The acting must be, for the most part, broad without being utterly ridiculous. The characters must seem foolish enough to fall for all the various schemes, mistaken identities and other contrivances concocted by the writer without coming off as blithering idiots. And the pace has to be quick enough to keep us (and the characters) on our feet, but not so fast that the convoluted plot becomes unbearably confusing.
Fortunately, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s founder and award-winning director Charlotte Moore has found the right formula to pull this tricky kind of comedy off with her assured production of Dion Boucicault’s 1841 play London Assurance. Moreover, this unusually handsome small-scale production provides treats for the eyes here as well as the ears, thanks to James Noone’s handsome sets and Sara Jean Trosetti’s equally lovely costumes.
But the play’s the thing here, and Boucicault’s is a doozy. It all revolves around the pre-arranged marriage of Sir Harcourt Courtly, a ridiculously vain 63-year-old man (played here with delicious brio and a delightful lack of self-awareness by the brilliant Colin McPhillamy), and Grace Harkaway, a level-headed 19-young-old girl (portrayed with great poise and intelligence by the lovely Caroline Strang) who is the epitome of femininity combined with feminism.
While neither one has met the other prior to the weekend of the wedding, both seem content to go through with the union for the financial gain involved. (Harcourt will receive Grace’s valuable land. She will get to keep living on it as well as get a sizable some of money.) That is, until they each encounter someone they prefer at the country estate of Grace’s kindly uncle Max (Brian Keane) during a pre-nuptial weekend.
In Harcourt’s case, the woman in question is the free-spirited Lady Gay Spanker (a bubblier-than-champagne Rachel Pickup). She’s married to the doting, even older Dolly (an excellent Robert Zukerman), but toys with Harcourt’s affections in order to help her beloved Grace, who has instantly fallen for an unexpected visitor, the handsome Augustus Hamilton. In reality, Harcourt’s irresponsible yet good-hearted son Charles (a perfectly cast Ian Holcomb), who must quickly reclaim his real identity while “killing off’ his alter-ego in order not to let his father find out about his louche London lifestyle.
Also on hand at Max’s estate, mostly to cause trouble, are Richard Dazzle (Craig Wesley Divino, adding a bit of homoeroticism to the role), a schemer who insinuates himself to everyone’s lives with his smooth tongue; Harcourt’s smarter-than-you-think servant Cool (the very fine Elliot Joseph, living up to his character’s name), and the annoying, money-hungry lawyer Mr. Meddle (Evan Zes, who sometimes drifts into caricature).
Somehow, Boucicault cleverly gets everyone – as well as Grace’s strong-willed maid Pert (Meg Hennessy) – involved in the ever-growing shenanigans. Eventually, there’s great joy in watching everyone (well, almost everyone) get their just desserts, without any real harm ever being done and the whole plot tied up in a metaphorically pretty bow. Indeed, this visit to the past is the perfect holiday present – for yourself or anyone you love.