The Games Are Afoot

Evan Zes and Ian Holcomb in Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance,” directed by Charlotte Moore, at the Irish Rep through February 9.
CAROL ROSEGG

If you’re looking for a delightful, light-as-air respite from your cares, by all means head on over to the Irish Rep where the rollicking revival of “London Assurance” will provide two-plus hours of guaranteed diversion, delivered with good humor and loads of charm. Sure, Dion Boucicault’s 1841 drawing room comedy is as creaky and predictable as it gets, but the familiar is very, very funny under Charlotte Moore’s sprightly direction.

The plot is as worn as an old glove. If the dewy ingenue Grace Harkaway doesn’t take the vain and over-rouged sexagenarian Sir Harcourt Courtly to be her lawfully wedded spouse in short order, she’ll be out the inheritance, which will go to Sir Courtly’s son, Charles. While Grace is willing to sacrifice herself for her family’s solvency, a sly young bounder known only as Dazzle arranges for Grace to meet Charles, disguised of course so as not to be recognized by his father, and the two fall in love at first sight. Meanwhile Sir Harcourt falls hard for the married Lady Gay Spanker, so Dazzle devises stratagems to entangle Sir Harcourt, match up Charles and Grace, and generally wreak emotional havoc over a weekend in the country. It’s all completely idiotic, which is why it’s so much fun, and, though the play was written in the early Victorian era, it really is much more in the vein of a classic Restoration comedy. Making virtually no demands on the audience and played unabashedly for laughs, this production is a welcome midwinter escape.

The company is clearly having as marvelous a time as the audience. Colin McPhillamy is hilarious as the self-satisfied and deluded Sir Harcourt. Ian Holcomb is endearing and appropriately ridiculous as the smitten Charles. Craig Wesley Divino is great as the penniless trickster one often finds in these tales, who befriends Charles while the young noble is drunk and works his way into the center of the shenanigans. Rachel Pickup takes huge bites out of the scenery as Lady Gay Spanker in a truly inspired comic turn — and then goes happily back for seconds and thirds — as she joins the plot to fool Sir Harcourt and let young love flourish. The rest of the cast amplifies the hijinks admirably, notably Meg Hennessy as Pert, the worldly wise maid who’s also complicit in the tricks, and Evan Zes as Mark Meddle, the lawyer looking to sue at the drop of a pun. (Of which there is a bountiful supply. It’s that kind of a script.)

All of this is done on the crammed and compact stage of the Irish Rep with a sumptuous production that includes period costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, terrific scenery by James Noone, and lighting by Michael Gottlieb.

Director Moore has thrown herself — and her company — into this simply to entertain. And they do. There’s never any doubt from the outset with the stereotypical characters and predictable plot where this is headed, but that’s part of the fun, too. After all if you’re going to all the effort of reviving a chestnut like “London Assurance,” the only way to go is to embrace the nuttiness.

Two charming performances and a couple of spooky effects are not sufficient to flesh out Lucas Hnath’s new play, “The Thin Place” into anything more than a half-told, rambling tale of the supernatural. It is, if you will, a shaggy ghost story.

The thin place of the title is that supposed line between worlds through which the living and the dead can pass and can sometimes communicate. The play opens with Hilda sitting in one of a pair of wingchairs and sipping tea on an otherwise bare stage. Hilda talks about her departed grandmother whom she loved, how she’s seeing her everywhere these days, and how when she was alive and Hilda was a girl her grandmother tried to prepare Hilda to communicate with her after death.

At some point a psychic named Linda enters and proceeds to chat with Hilda about that grandmother on the other side, later telling her own story, and finally admitting that despite saying she’s a “real psychic” most of what she does is a trick. Rather than being shocked, Hilda instead holds onto her belief that she can communicate with her grandmother, even if it is a fraud. Two more characters appear, Jerry and Sylvia, and suddenly we’re celebrating that Linda has gotten a visa to stay in the US. Then there’s another story, some scary phone calls, a total blackout, a single red lightbulb, lights back up, and we’re back to Hilda alone in her chair. There’s also a mindreading gimmick that’s a bit heavy-handed. Then it’s all over.

The playwright seems to be going for something about the nature of reality, belief, and stories and how they shape us or don’t. The structure, though, is more random than artful, and the effects are self-conscious and labored. It is all exposition and very little character development, so it gets tiresome very quickly. One shouldn’t have to parse the play to try to find a point to it all.

The saving graces of the production, as far as they go, are the performances by Emily Cass McDonnell as Hilda and Randy Danson as Linda. McDonnell has an ethereal innocence that makes one lean forward and pay attention. She draws you into her story even if it is rambling. Danson affects a lower-class British accent and has a kind of gritty clarity that makes a nice counterpoint to McDonnell.

But there’s not enough suspense here for a thriller or scariness for a ghost story. “The Thin Place” is just a meandering tale that leaves one disappointedly saying, “aww, boo” — but not in that cool, ghost story way.

LONDON ASSURANCE | Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. | Through Feb. 9: Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $50-$70 at irishrep.org or 212-727-2737 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission

THE THIN PLACE | Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 26: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $59-$99 and phnyc.org or 212-279-4200 | Ninety mins., with no intermission

Randy Danson and Emily Cass McDonnell in Lucas Hnath’s “The Thin Place,” directed by Les Waters, at Playwright’s Horizons through January 26.
JOAN MARCUS

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