In 1896, when 'London Assurance" was already 55 years old, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "If 'London Assurance' were revived (and I beg that nothing of the kind be attempted . . .)"
Shaw was under the misapprehension that plays get revived because they are somehow germane to contemporary issues. Plays, I'm afraid, get revived because actors want to do them.
Dion Boucicault's comedy about an aging fop marrying for money has prospered for a century and a half not because of its literary merits (though it is full of elegant humor) or its social commentary (though it has perennially timely jokes about lawyers and socialites' eagerness for publicity), but because it provides delicious roles.
The production Joe Dowling has directed for the Roundabout is unabashedly theatrical. Two decades ago, a stunning RSC production showed that the play can sustain a less artificial approach, but broad acting is fine for a play that deals in very broad strokes.
In one scene, for example, someone says of a young woman, "She is, with the exception of my bay mare Kelly, the handsomest thing in the county." Another character objects to comparing a woman to a horse, and the first responds, "She's almost as fine a creature." Such dialogue may not require naturalism.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Sir Harcourt Courtly, a self-infatuated fashion plate who, by the terms of a friend's will, must marry the friend's daughter. Elderly, vain, fatuous, he assumes she will be dazzled by his status. She is, in fact, indifferent to him, but falls in love with his rakish son. Sir Harcourt himself falls for a horsy set harridan with the fabulous name Lady Gay Spanker.
As Lady Gay, Helen Carey is the most successful at bridging the gap between stagyness and realism. Her husky voice and her rugged way of stalking the stage are perfect for a woman who is happiest astride a horse. She does a monologue about hunting so well it exhilarated even sedentary, fox-loving me (this despite the accompaniment of a directorial irritant pretentious, intrusive music).
Brian Bedford makes Sir Harcourt an unapologetic creature of the stage. His first entrance is not just that of a man who imagines he is always being admired but also that of an actor who constantly hears his public's applause. As an actor of great achievement, Bedford has the right to play both choices. His best moments are when he has Sir Harcourt try to make gallant gestures with his agin g bones.
The supporting cast is superb, especially Ken Jennings as Lady Gay's anemic husband, Kathryn Meisle as the down-to-earth heiress and David Schramm as her expansive guardian. Robert Neill is sublime as a butler.
The sets and costumes add to the festive air.
"London Assurance" is giddy and delectable. As the grueling season ends, it provides a refreshing, thoroughly entertaining dessert.
Brian Bedford smirks expansively, even knowingly, at the audience with undisguised self-satisfaction, his rogued cheeks and raven-dyed locks, his mellifluously articulated voice, even his ornamented dressing gown, all adding to the impression of artifice gone mad.
This flamboyant performance in the grand mannerism of Sir Harcourt Courtly is one of the main joys in the joyous “London Assurance,” the Dion Boucicault comedy revived last night by the Roundabout Theater.
What a deliriously happy if rickety English classic this is! It is Irish, of course, but then, where would the English theater be without the Irish?
At one time there was thought to be something of a vacuum in the annals of English drama between those two Irishmen Sheridan and Goldsmith and the century or so before those other Irishmen, Wilde, Shaw and O’Casey.
Not a bit of it. There was another Irishman in between, Dion L. Boucicault (1822-1890) who has the probably unique distinction of being an Anglo-American Irish playwright. Born in Dublin, his career started in London before it moved to New York, where he died.
By far the most popular playwright of his day, on both sides of the Atlantic, he fell into sad neglect, until the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theater in London helped resuscitate his unjustly failed fortunes.
The story, set in the 1820s, is of Sir Harcourt, a widower and aging beau, and his efforts at marrying a pretty young heiress, Grace Harkaway (Kathryn Meisle) being thwarted by his son, Charles (Rainn Wilson) assisted by a horsy, fox-hunting personage, Lady Gay Spanker (Helen Carey).
It is all impossibly crazy, and Boucicault has enlivened it with some beautiful characters – all heaven-sent gifts to actors – including Grace’s bluffly decent guardian Max (David Schramm), Sir Harcourt’s valet Cool (John Horton), Meddle (John Christopher Jones) an egregiously meddlesome lawyer, and a wondrously mysterious character, Richard Dazzle (Christopher Evan Welch) who wanders into the play and proceeds to direct its action.
The gorgeous plum of a role belongs, of course, to that defiantly aging peacock, Sir Harcourt, and Bedford, suggesting an over-brimming of ego, hopefully lecherous and vaingloriously vain, takes this man of fading fashion and throws him into the play like a guided missile.
Joe Dowling’s staging is a match for Bedford’s flash and virtuosity. With Derek MacLane’s conventionally attractive settings and Catherine Zuber’s apt costumes, the production is properly a team effort.
In all, a production which helps restore the Roundabout’s fortunes after few steps lacking in, shall we say, assurance.
Just under the wire (the annual one that exists for Tony nominations, that is) comes the comic performance of the season. It is turned in by that master thespian, Brian Bedford, who plays the preening, lascivious, utterly adorable Sir Harcourt Courtly in Joe Dowling's stylish new production of Dion L. Boucicault's ''London Assurance.''
Mr. Bedford, who appropriated the stage of the Roundabout Theater Company two years ago for a tour de force in ''The Moliere Comedies,'' tops himself in his return to the Roundabout, where the play opened last night. He is the helium on which this goofy vehicle, an 1841 prequel to the modern situation comedy if there ever was one, remains aloft. As befits the star of the show, Mr. Bedford gets entrance applause. And over the next two and a half breezy hours, he proves that he merits every last clap.
The pleasure of his company washes over the audience with his very first appearance, in over-rouged cheeks and a wonderfully ridiculous dark wig, perfect for a vain old coot pretending to be a young and eligible 40. The script, of course, mentions not a word about turning to acknowledge the crowd's approval, but you're grateful when the actor, in character, opens his arms and performs a dainty bow. The pact between the entertainer and the entertained is instantly sealed. ''Sit back,'' seems to be his telepathic message, ''and let me do the work.''
Equal parts Reginald van Gleason and Cogsworth, the pompous esthete turned Regency clock of Disney's ''Beauty and the Beast,'' Sir Harcourt, an aging English fop with designs on the fortune of the beautiful niece of a country squire, plays to Mr. Bedford's flair for histrionic buffoonery and physical comedy. In the stuffily Frenchified speech Mr. Bedford fashions for Sir Harcourt, ''reunion'' becomes ''ray-OOO-nee-onh,'' with the final syllable pronounced so nasally it threatens to stick in his nostrils. And he can get deeper belly laughs for a knee that won't bend than most comedians get from an entire body in disrepair. Watching him cling to the bodice of lusty Lady Gay Spanker (the delightful Helen Carey), not out of prurient design but a need for support, may just be the funniest single moment on a New York stage this year.
Last performed on Broadway in 1974 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Donald Sinden as an acclaimed Sir Harcourt, ''London Assurance'' is by no means a great play. The endless asides and transparent devices give the broad comedy by Boucicault, an Irishman who came to live and write plays in New York, a slapdash quality. The seams show all over the place. But as Mr. Dowling's ensemble demonstrates, the work can be a witty confection even if the story, of an urban gentleman and his son in unwitting competition for the hand of a young woman, is of virtually no consequence. As with the ludicrous capers of a Marx Brothers movie, the plot of ''London Assurance'' is an excuse for an evening of tickling exhibitionism; it could just as easily have been set in Fredonia as in Belgrave Square and Gloucestershire.
Mr. Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and former head of the Abbey Theater in Dublin, his hometown, undoubtedly felt a connection to a countryman who left Ireland to work in the American theater. The play, too, is right up Mr. Dowling's alley; he is a director with a strong feel for character and a firm hand when it comes to pacing, as he showed last year at the Guthrie with a surprisingly festive, kinetic ''Cherry Orchard.''
Rarely has the Roundabout's constricted playing area been made to seem so expansive. Derek McLane's cheery renderings of a London drawing room, an English garden and the common room of a country estate, are amusingly tongue-in-cheek, down to the stuffed fox over the estate's fireplace. Catherine Zuber's costumes are a perfect complement, displaying an exuberant affection for upper-class excess. The stovepipe hats and embroidered waistcoats and lush riding togs overdress the characters in proportion to their exaggerated sense of themselves.
Boucicault's stable of stock types and purple language -- Squire this and Lady that are given to saying things like ''I append'' and ''she is much taken with your address'' -- are ordinarily not strong suits for North American actors. But most members of the cast avoid the obvious pitfalls. The best include John Horton, as Cool, Sir Harcourt's dry-as-the-Gobi valet, and Ms. Carey's robust Lady Gay, an outdoorswoman with enough zest to ride a horse up Mount Everest. Kathryn Meisle makes a ravishing and crafty Grace Harkaway, the object of Sir Harcourt's pecuniary interest, and the diminutive Ken Jennings is a walking sight gag as Lady Gay's unobtrusive husband.
Some of the men have tougher times with supporting roles; John Christopher Jones's scheming lawyer, Meddle, is a bundle of mannerisms, and Rainn Wilson and Christopher Evan Welch seem a bit modern for their partnership in deception as Sir Harcourt's son, Charles, and his shifty pal, Richard Dazzle.
It's clear, however, that this production first and foremost belongs to Mr. Bedford; the level of performance is simply a cut above, maybe two. Perhaps the Roundabout, a theater dedicated to revivals, should just open a slot for Mr. Bedford in the classic of his choice every season. It would certainly insure that audiences entered clapping.
Powdered, rouged and all but embalmed, Brian Bedford's magnificently vain Sir Harcourt Courtly marks a fitting end to a Broadway spring that put more stock in style than substance. Bedford, starring in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of the 1841 comedy "London Assurance," deserves thanks --- not to mention a Tony nomination --- for putting the season to rest with a good laugh.
The Dion L. Boucicault play, if not exactly a masterwork, at least demonstrates yet again that clever dialogue and memorable characters can hold their own against any special effect or overwrought score that can be dreamed up. Joe Dowling's staging, if a bit strained at times, puts together some fine actors and turns them loose on Boucicault's tart observations on love and vanity.
Boucicault's wit does not cut particularly deep --- the Irish playwright, only 21 years old when he wrote "London Assurance," wanted only to produce a rollicking (and commercial) comedy. In both the play and this production, social satire, though present, is secondary to the play's silly fun.
And the most fun is had in watching Bedford. Actually, Bedford seems to be having the most fun, but there's enough for the audience to share. As the brilliantly named Harcourt Courtly (Boucicault's playfulness is never more apparent than in his characters' names: Lady Gay Spanker, Richard Dazzle, Cool the valet ...), Bedford sweeps onto the stage in a brocade dressing gown (costumes designed by Catherine Zuber), painted face and tar-black wig, the very definition of vainglorious. Harcourt, a self-appointed arbiter of fashion, shows every minute of his 63 years while insisting with a straight (however rouged) face that he's "40, next month."
He is as deeply in denial about his son Charles (Rainn Wilson), a drunken roustabout thought by his father to be the embodiment of studious virtue. Charles' cover is about to be blown: The son has fallen in love with the lovely Grace Harkaway (Kathryn Meisle), a young, no-nonsense woman pledged, through a long-standing business arrangement, to become the wife of none other than Sir Harcourt Courtly. (The play's title is a pun on "assurance," meaning both a pledge and extreme self-confidence.)
Grace, whose firm belief about love is that "the very word is a breathing satire on man's reason," not only falls for Sir Harcourt's son, but is doubly appalled upon laying eyes for the first time on Sir Harcourt himself. Happily anticipating wealth in exchange for a nominal marriage to a doddering memory of a man, she's stunned to find that her intended is a preening peacock who'll no doubt expect more than she's willing to give.
Complications mount during a country weekend arranged by Charles' newfound friend, a mercenary schemer named Richard Dazzle (Christopher Evan Welch). Also in attendance: Grace's protective uncle Max (David Schramm), a sportsman as robust as Harcourt is effete; Lady Gay Spanker (Helen Carey), a horsewoman who shares Max's lusty approach to life; Lady Gay's milquetoast husband, Adolphus (Ken Jennings); and conniving attorney Mark Meddle (John Christopher Jones), who'd be an ambulance-chaser if 1841 London had ambulances.
False identities, overheard secrets and, of course, Sir Harcourt's supreme self-delusions fuel the farce as Sir Harcourt becomes convinced that Lady Gay, with whom he is newly smitten, returns his affections.
The cast plays out the convolutions with, yes, assurance, with Welch, who recently matched Bill Irwin's clowning in "Scapin," again impressive as the quick-thinking Dazzle. The play's actresses, Carey and Meisle, take full advantage of characters written every bit as memorably (and comically) as the men, and Schramm, as the gruff Max, makes a fine counterpoint to Harcourt's rarefied ways. Only Wilson (as the son), Jones (the attorney) and Jennings (the wimpy husband) occasionally push too hard for comic effect, reaches that Dowling encourages with his own excesses. How many times can the lawyer be pushed into a cart of manure?
But Bedford, whose expression of offense at the odorific attorney is priceless, makes up for any shortcomings. His Harcourt isn't merely vain, he's desperately vain, forcing a chuckle to save face when a joke's told at his expense, or attempting youthful chivalry by pleading on arthritic, bended knee --- a comic performance of the most assured kind.