Show: “London Assurance”
Company: City Lit Theatre
Venue: City Lit Theatre (1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave)
If you follow the Chicago theatre market at all, you have probably noticed that the air is full of tension these days. Even before the most recent controversy over the writings of another critic in town, theatre practitioners have been highly energized over the last few months, largely because of the political climate of the country. There have been calls from artists to their peers that ask us all to focus exclusively on making our works political in nature. The quote that “All art is political” can be attributed to many, many people over the years, but one of my favorite renditions of the maxim comes from Ingmar Bergman: “Today we say all art is political. But I’d say all art has to do with ethics. Which after all really comes to the same thing. It’s a matter of attitudes.” A constant barrage of pieces of angry, politically charged theatre have come to Chicago’s stages since November (and before). They are welcome and they are needed, but sometimes audiences and artists need reprieve from the repetition of comment on the political climate. So, it is that a comedy of manners from 1841 is a welcome addition to the theatrical scene. It is a beautiful bit of comedic relief from a world that grates daily upon the spirit. And yet, any comedy of manners revolves around ethics, and so Mr. Bergman remains correct.
“London Assurance” covers familiar territory for British farces of the early 1800s. An old man is engaged to a nubile youth of 18 years. The geezer’s son meets the young lady and falls in love. She, too, has feelings for the younger guy. Additional characters get involved, muddle the plot, and everything works out in the end. It’s fun, funny, and mostly predictable. And, that’s okay. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable.
Supposedly an influence on Oscar Wilde’s writing, this is witty show about the upper crust behaving badly. At first light, Edward Kuffert takes the stage as the clever and droll butler, Cool. His opening moments addressing the audience directly set a tone for the entire play, which does depend heavily on asides to comment on the action and provide a good deal of the humor. A moment later, rapscallions Richard Dazzle (Richard Eisloeffel) and Charles Courtly (Kraig Kelsey) take the stage. The latter of the two is the son, mentioned above, who will come to fall in love with his father’s betrothed. The former is a scheming trouble-maker whose machinations don’t carry direct malice of mischievousness, but rather the overall goal of providing himself an easy life. And yet, it is those self same plots and actions which lead to much of the show’s complications. Eisloeffel plays the part with easy charm and a puckish grin.
The other unintentional trouble-maker of the show is Squire Max Harkaway (James Sparling). He is charmed by Richard Dazzle, and starts the chain of invitations that leads to Charles Courtly’s wooing of Grace Harkaway (Kat Evans), who just so happens be to both Max Harkaway’s niece, and Charles’s father’s fiance. Sparling’s confident and engaging presence allows the boisterous role of Max to take firm hold of the show and carry it upon his shoulders. Each time he takes the stage, things get more interesting.
Director Terry McCabe has done a tremendous job of casting the show exactly as needed. Each actor seems fits their character so well, I can’t imagine another in their part. And the staging flows naturally, in a play that has a number of far-from-natural contrivances that make the whole thing work. I mentioned the asides earlier. Often times, I find such theatrical conventions annoying thanks to poor staging. They can kill an otherwise sharp production. McCabe’s cast executes the clever side comments in a way that makes you look forward to the next one.
There was one character that I could do without, Mark Meddle (Joe Feliciano). At the time of its writing, perhaps the self-serving, maleficent lawyer may have lampooned some specific current opinion of attorneys. In fact, it still may. But as scripted, the overly-litigious, money-grubbing lawyer could be edited out of the script and it would remove needless distraction from what is an otherwise tight script. Feliciano does all he can with the role. What is lacking here is a fault of the playwright, not the actor.
A quick call-out to the scenic designer, Ray Toler, whose rotating walls allowed City Lit’s uniquely shaped stage to become two large British estates. And Tom Kieffer’s costumes were exactly what it took to place this show in its time and place, the attention to detail in the dresses was marvelous.
Finally, I cannot truly review this show without mention of Kingsley Day’s performance as Sir Harcourt Courtly. The elder lover in this play is an absurd role, and this is just the sort of thing at which Day excels. I’ve worked with Kingsley on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan shows, and this role has a bit of the flavor of many of the characters he’s embodied over the years. I thoroughly enjoy watching an actor shine in a role that seems to have been written for him. Not once do you hope that Sir Harcourt will get the girl, and it is easy to revel in his self-inflicted mishaps. And yet, the character is hard not to love. Day gives him that little something special that wriggles the aging fop into one’s heart.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: After 120 years, this show is welcome back in Chicago
RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”