By Bob Hicks
The late lamented Charlie Snowden, Mr. Scatter’s boss at the old Oregon Journal (a newspaper that died when the industry was healthy), was a man who appreciated a good joke but also had unyielding standards.
At his perch on the news desk, Charlie was known to lightly mock certain passages of flowery writing as he slashed through copy with his big black pencil. Sometimes he’d sigh or giggle and choose to overlook a phrase that not so privately drove him crazy: He knew which writers had permission to roam and which did not. But that didn’t stop him from pulling out his inkpad and his favorite stamp and branding the hard copy with his own gleeful judgment. The type was in a florid, immediately post-Gutenberg, barely readable old gothic. “WRETCHED EXCESS,” it said.
Ah, but what if the excess isn’t wretched?
That’s the sort of excess that courses through Dion Boucicault‘s ramshackle 1841 comedy London Assurance, which recently enjoyed a sold-out revival at the National Theatre. That production was filmed live in London on June 28, before the show closed, and it was screened for Portland audiences twice on Saturday by Third Rail Repertory, which has an agreement with the National to show its filmed productions.
Mr. Scatter will argue that it is precisely the excesses in this calculated crowd-pleaser that make London Assurance work — and the firm command of excess on the part of the performers that steers it clear of wretchedness.
This sort of performance is an apparent contradiction that, when it’s pulled off, leads to delight. (And it doesn’t hurt that the form itself relieves the audience of the pressure and expectations of High Art, so it can relax and enjoy genuine popular art.) Actors love to go over the top. But unless it’s strictly controlled, going over the top topples the entire theatrical edifice. The trick is to be out of control and yet ruthlessly under control at the same time. To borrow a title from David Ives, it’s all in the timing. London Assurance is filled with what these days is referred to condescendingly as “bits” — actorly flourishes that are frankly artificial and exaggerated; calculated to garner laughter, cheap or not: sight gags. Only the best of comic actors have the rhythmic, musical, and ensemble sense to be overblown in precisely the right way, to steal a scene in a manner that makes the entire scene take off, to plant a sight gag early and just keep milking it until it becomes uncontrollably (or apparently uncontrollably) funny, to keep a scene rolling that on paper seems not to be going anywhere, to make an absolute virtue of utter triviality. What offends some observers about farce and its comic cousins is its mechanical qualities: It is meticulously calculated to produce certain effects. Yet when it works, the calculations are simply the structural craftsmanship that allows the whole thing to soar toward the ozone — and what gift is more appreciated or necessary than the gift of genuine laughter, of being allowed to escape one’s self for a couple of hours?
Readers will note that Mr. Scatter hasn’t written a word so far about the play’s plot. That’s not accidental. To a very large degree, it simply doesn’t matter. There is the question of a will, and a young gentlewoman’s need to marry wisely or risk penury (think Jane Austen), and a foolish old man with amorous pretensions (think Moliere) and a young adventurer brought to his senses (think Tom Jones), and a lot of stock characters (think Shakespeare and commedia dell’arte and most of European and American theatrical history), and several servants who are smarter and more wise to the ways of the world than their slightly dim-bulb masters (think Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, or Dilbert), and a half-hearted deus ex machina (think Restoration comedy). Boucicault wasn’t trying anything new. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, he was exploiting his knowledge of the tried and true and squooshing them together with a pragmatic, postmodern (each for his particular time) sensibility.
An onlooker can roll her eyes at that, or she can choose to appreciate the author’s affection for the history of the theater. She can also choose to appreciate the irony that in terms of style, what goes around comes around. London Assurance is, in its own antique way, performance art. That is, it exists primarily not as a literary work of high merit but as a loose structure to show off its performers’ individual skills. Performance art rose in the past quarter-century partly as a reaction against the autocracy of the well-crafted script. Looked on as a radical departure, it was also in reality a return (modernized, to be sure) to the old virtues: the primacy of the performer in the performance. It was the old stage stars taking bows after speeches; bel canto singers with their superb control and individualistic flourishes; the old Russian ballet dancers with their athletic feats of prowess. Something basic is at work here. Look at me: Look what I can do.
Predictability isn’t necessarily a crime. There is something to be said for an author, director and performers being on the same page as their audience, playing around with familiar themes in ways that might still be fresh and revealing. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the National’s London Assurance, is simply one of the best in the business. And his cast, packed to the gills with actors who understand that a play is an open invitation to play, is a revelation. The great Fiona Shaw plays Lady Gay Spanker at a headstrong horsey gallop; Richard Briers is an addled wheeze as her husband Dolly Spanker; Michelle Terry is a sardonic anti-damsel-in-distress as the wryly named Grace, a bit like Emma Thompson as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; Paul Ready as the lovestruck young Charles has a Hugh Grant-like blend of dash and diffidence; Nick Sampson, as the cynical valet Cool, is as cool as a caustic cucumber. But no one gets into the spirit of the thing quite so robustly as Simon Russell Beale, who plays the preening Sir Harcourt Courtly, Charles’s father and his rival for Grace’s affections (or at least, her willingness to wed). A man who has gone the way of way too much flesh, Sir Harcourt nonetheless thinks of himself as the figure of rakish youth, and Beale plays him as some sort of unlikely cross of Sir John Falstaff in glorious excess and Malvolio preening over his yellow garters in Twelfth Night. Make no mistake: London Assurance is not Twelfth Night, or anything approaching it. But Boucicault stole only from the best, and Hytner and his performers eagerly follow suit.
I wrote that London Assurance is like a 19th century version of performance art, but there is one key difference: performance art (and of course there are exceptions) isn’t much for comedy. Another difference: performance art is generally scripted by the performer, who plays a version of herself or himself: Like singer/songwriters, performance artists have no room for other peoples’ words.
So let me suggest where the spirit of London Assurance lives on: in situation comedies and dramadies, on your television screen. As much as arts aficionados put the forms down, many of the best pure performers in the business are the stars of these weekly romps through the maze of mundanity. They are Everyman and Everywoman, leading in exaggerated form the everyday lives that their audiences lead. They celebrate the sameness of civilization and its discontents, blustering and blundering through in their attempts to keep a bit of themselves against the forces of inevitability. The stories are usually negligible (in fact, being “relevant” can ruin them; think of the frequently sanctimonious All in the Family, or the platitudes of the television version of M*A*S*H compared to the genuine satire of its original movie version), and all too often just plain bad (they can’t all be Boston Legal or Frasier or, for that matter, The Honeymooners or Mayberry, R.F.D.). But those stock characters, who at their best break out of their stocks and create their own stamp of comic excess: they are utterly themselves, and they are also us. Candice Bergen, John Goodman, Charlie Sheen, Kelsey Grammer, William Shatner, Tim Allen, Tina Fey: they are our holy fools. Mr. Scatter has the feeling Dion Boucicault would be writing like a madman for them, if he were alive and kicking today.
ILLUSTRATION: Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly in the National Theatre’s filmed version of “London Assurance.”Â Photo: Catherine Ashmore