Chicago Theater Review: LONDON ASSURANCE (City Lit at Edgewater Presbyterian Church)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 24, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


You can’t keep a good comedy down. Wildly popular in its time, Dion Boucicault’s 1841 London Assurance is a mating romp that, inexplicably, has not been performed in Chicago for 120 years. Thanks to City Lit, the city’s amazing patience since 1897 is now richly rewarded. An Irish actor’s Victorian laugh-factory is propelled by artful disguises, mistaken identities, rural-urban culture contrasts, arch apostrophes to the audience, ready reversals of expectations, and a contagious affection for human folly in the throes of love.

Delightful and overdue, Terry McCabe’s revival expertly exploits the desperate stratagems to get their ways that characters need to hide and audiences love to be “in on.” The vortex of this whirlpool is the kind of mismatched May-December engagement that nature abhors and comedy must cure. Supposedly on to love’s “epidemic madness,” 18-year-old Grace Harkaway (a deliciously demure Kat Evans) is reluctantly engaged in an alliance of properties with haughty Sir Harcourt Courtly (Kingsley Day, insufferably narcissistic), a 63-year-old suitor indifferent to his fiancée’s youth and charm. In a mere three days—and six acts—all this will change.

Paying a visit to the Gloucestershire estate of her uncle, Squire Max Harkaway (a bluntly rusticated James Sparling), Grace, accompanied by her maid Pert (Jean Waller), meets and soon fancies Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey as a deft trickster), her fiancé’s rakehell son. Charles is craftily accompanied by his wily companion Richard Dazzle (impish Richard Eisloeffel). Ripe to advance his friend’s obvious attraction to Grace, Dazzle persuades him to adopt the identity of bon vivant “Augustus Hamilton.” (In effect, Boucicault invents “bunburying,” or seducing under false pretenses, over a half century before Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.) This busy fake woos wily Grace (who’s too sharp to miss the clumsy imposture), though Sir Harcourt, ever oblivious, doesn’t recognize his son in virtually no disguise.

To distract Sir Harcourt from interfering with his son’s new romance and possibly disinheriting him, a second subterfuge is required. The fortuitous arrival of horsewoman/fox huntress Lady Gay Spanker (ebullient Cameron Feagin) provides just the cover Charles requires. Disdaining her milquetoast husband Adolphus “Dolly” Spanker (sad sack David Fink, hilariously mousey), this gay lady proceeds to entangle a ga-ga Sir Harcourt—to the point of inspiring a doomed elopement. Worse, abetted by the venal lawyer Mark Meddle (an officious Joe Feliciano), Lady Gay’s strategic dalliance triggers an equally hapless pistol duet between Dolly and Sir Harcourt. A dozen mishaps add up to a happy ending.

Apart from the expertly orchestrated shenanigans of concealment and disclosure, Boucicault is equally shrewd at character comedy. The courtship between the passive-aggressive Grace, always wary of the marriage market, and an increasingly insecure Charles/Augustus, tripped up by his heart and losing his mind, is a psychological gem of approach and avoidance. Likewise, Lady Gay’s zest (Feagin in full flirtation) at flummoxing the men around her is merrily matched by Dazzle’s supple machinations (Eisloeffel effortlessly duplicitous) in the service of his friend Charles.

Very game for their, well, games, City Lit’s thirteen performers (several in small but never thankless roles)—to recycle their names—dazzle, spank, court, meddle, and hark away. (Dialect coach Carrie Hardin drives home the city-country divergences.) Theatrical assurance, as much as London’s, dutifully lifts laughs out of lines. Ray Toler’s playful double set and Tom Kieffer’s all-defining costumes (with witty wigs by Bob Kuper) are enhanced by Kingsley Day’s incidental music and Liz Cooper’s sprightly lighting.

After so long a departure, it’s swell to welcome back this comedy, a brilliant hybrid of the eighteenth century drawing room delights that preceded it (Goldsmith, Gay and Sheridan) and the well-made farces that followed (Wilde, Shaw, Pinero, and Barrie). Perhaps more than any year before, 2017 needs a sense of humor. In these darkening days we crave an excuse to giggle, titter, chuckle, chortle, cackle, snigger, snort and hoot. There’s a bit of each in the 145 minutes of London Assurance.

photos by Ally Neutze

London Assurance
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri & Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3;
Mon (July 10 & 17) at 7:30
ends on July 23, 2017
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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