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.