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‘London Assurance’ at City Lit: Classic farce under full sail, by a wild Irishman before Wilde

Submitted by on Jul 18, 2017 – 1:34 pm

Review: “London Assurance” by Dion Boucicault, at City Lit Theater through July 23. ★★★
By Nancy Malitz

Oscar Wilde’s irresistible comedies exalting the escapades of the silly rich have never gone out of style, but City Lit Theater has done Chicago a big favor in allowing us to make the acquaintance of an all but forgotten playwright who was Wilde’s spiritual father of sorts.

Now enjoying a raucous run in the Edgewater neighborhood is “London Assurance” by a fellow Irish playwright some three decades Wilde’s elder – Dion Boucicault. His first name is short for Dionysius, a moniker well suited to this particular author’s own personal habits, best summarized as extravagant transcontinental transgressions.

Boucicault’s “London Assurance” was a huge hit in 1841, and it’s still a brilliant bauble, though it hadn’t been seen in Chicago for 120 years. The domestic farce anticipates Wilde’s subversive comedy of mistaken identity “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Common to both is the theme of a young man who dons separate identities in town and country, only to be tripped up by all the farcical coincidences you can possibly imagine.

Boucicault (pronounced boo-see-ko) believed the English moral code existed primarily to be flouted, and in this play he got down to business immediately. Young London aristocrat Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) has a frat boy mentality. He plunges into his father’s London flat in the wee hours with a new friend in tow; they’ve been relieving the neighborhood of its door knockers and are quite delighted with their bulging sack of bibelots.

Charles’ old father, Sir Harcourt Courtly, is a finagler, too, determined to marry Grace, the 18-year-old heiress to the country estate adjoining his own. Once rich, now penniless, the aristocrat expects the country girl to welcome the idea. This is instantly funny, as played by Kingsley Day, done up as a withered old string bean with a jet-black coif and fancy clothes.

There’s more taffeta than testosterone in the old geezer; he looks as fragile as a feather. But what he loves, he loves fiercely, and that is money. He reminisces fondly about his first wife, who ran off, allowing him to collect £10,000 in damages: “It was one of the luckiest chances – a thing that does not happen twice in a man’s life!” Other than money, Courtly doesn’t notice much. He is easily fooled when his son Charles, insisting he’s not who he is, turns up at the very country estate where the elder has gone a-courting.

Thus a farcical plot is knitted, because once young Courtly sets eyes on the same lovely Grace (Kat Evans), there’s father-son rivalry afoot, with friends and servants in on the game. Chief among these is Lady Gay Spanker, a fox-and-hounds hellion with a little “Hello” Dolly in her – she spots the chemistry between Charles and Grace and decides to help.

Lady Spanker is also instantly funny, thanks to Cameron Feagin‘s whip-willed performance as the full-throated minx in pursuit of a good time. Feagin is particularly endearing late in the play, when Spanker’s timid spouse, Adolphus, whom she calls “Dolly, bless his stupid face,” comes into enthralling, port-induced vigor. (David Fink is sweetly hilarious as the morphing hubby.)

Although City Lit’s postage stamp of a stage offers little of the extravagantly upholstered Covent Garden production that reportedly had the London public agog in 1841, set designer Ray Toler, costume designer Tom Kieffer and wig designer Rob Kuper make impressive virtue of the necessary intimacy. They detail the switch from city to country before our eyes and draw the audience into the fun with peer-to-peer players’ asides.

Much of what might have been immediately clear on a splendid proscenium stage seemed tediously confusing at first, but once the cast of 13 had introduced themselves and the city-country contrast properly set forth, the production directed by artistic director Terry McCabe was great fun. City Lit’s excellent ensemble cast delivered a plot rippling with scandalous offenses, conveyed with stylish language and an air of casual indifference.

One hesitates to give away too much of the plot, except to note that the delightful Kat Evans as Grace is no mere ingénue; Evans’ Grace may think herself a cynic with no use for love, but once lit by romance she shows plenty of spunk. The names of other characters hint at where the story goes: the smooth valet Cool (Edward Kuffert as the best liar in London) and Charles’ enabling friend Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) grease the wheels of the play; the lawyer Meddle (wheedling Joe Feliciano) and creditor Solomon Isaacs (Zach Bloomfield) toss in hurdles de rigueur; country squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling) is charming and rustic as old Courtly’s sounding board.

City Lit’s production shines the light as well on Boucicault, whose colorful life is worth reading up on. This notorious roustabout must have used himself as the character model for Dazzle, the very definition of someone who makes it up as he goes along. Caught in need of explaining who he is, Dazzle at one point expounds on how he is “a most intimate friend, a friend of years – distantly related to the family – one of my ancestors married one of his.”

He is referring to Adam and Eve.

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