By George Basler

Mary E. Donnelly calls London Assurance “the funniest play you’ve never heard of.” She describedsthe high-spirted comedy, first performed in 1841, as part battle of the sexes, part battle of the generations and part battle between country life and city life.

Most importantly, it’s filled with laughs, said Donnelly, who is directing a Summer Savoyards production of the play that opens March 9 for a two-weekend run at the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton. The show is a fundraiser for both the museum and the Savoyards, who stage productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas every summer.

London Assurance was written by the Irishman Dion Boucicault. While largely forgotten today, Boucicault (1820-1890) was one of the most successful actor/playwrights of his era on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times, at the time of his death, hailed him as “the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century.”

At the same time, he was a not good businessman and lost several fortunes over his lifetime, because he kept investing in theaters that went belly up, Donnelly said. (One of his theaters, though, the Winter Garden in New York City, still stands.)

Donnelly, an associate professor of English and theater at SUNY Broome, said she discovered Boucicault through her scholarly work in Irish literature of the early 20th century. His plays featured broad comic characters and ethnic stereotypes that are outdated, Donnelly said, noting: “He couldn’t walk away from easy laughs.”

London Assurance, however, still holds up, Donnelly said. “It’s hilarious and so funny. It took us an hour longer than normal at the first reading (because) we were laughing so hard,” she said.

Boucicault wrote the satiric comedy at age 20, and it was his first big hit. There have been several productions in recent years, including one at the Royal National Theatre in Great Britain in 2010. A live performance was simulcast to cinemas around the world.

 London Assurance (assurance is another word for snobbery) is a classic city mouse/country mouse story in which some characters get their needed comeuppances, Donnelly said.

Featured is a lineup of eccentric characters who become embroiled in comic misadventures. Heading the list is Sir Harcourt Courtly, a 57-year-old lustful fop who has come to a country house to claim an 18-year-old bride and her large fortune. Other characters include a conniving lawyer, a horse-riding virago, Courtly’s dissolute son and the son’s equally dissolute companion.

The play requires good comic timing. The 11 cast members, many of whom she’s worked with before, are “dead on” in this respect, Donnelly said.

Charles Berman, a member of the local comedy troupe Peaches & Crime, is playing Sir Harcourt Courtly. Other cast members have performed locally for groups such as Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier (BLAST), SRO Productions III, Summer Savoyards and Southern Tier Actors Read. The costume designer is Julia Adams, and James Ulrich is the set designer.

London Assurance is “a little slapstick and lots of verbal humor,” Donnelly said, noting: “People always want to laugh at ostentatious behavior.”

IF YOU GO: The Summer Savoyards will present London Assurance for two weekends at the Phelps Mansion Museum, 191 Court St., Binghamton. Performances are 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 9; 7 p.m. Friday, March 15, and 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16. General admission tickets at $25 can be ordered at or purchased at the door.