Michael L. Quintos
When it comes to gut-busting, hilarious slapstick farce, it's almost a given that the Brits—who count Rowan Atkinson and the entire Monty Python troupe among its tribe—are very well-attuned to this unique art form.
That is certainly in full, glorious display in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, Richard Bean's exceedingly hilarious comedy of errors, misdirections, and misunderstandings that's now receiving a superb West Coast premiere production at Orange County's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory theater through October 11. An undeniably entertaining regional co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Northern California, the play—masterfully helmed by director David Ivers—is a wonderful kick-off to the Costa Mesa institution's 52nd season.
To put it succinctly, be ready to laugh your ass off.
A brilliant, witty melange of slapstick, sight gags, silly absurdity, hyperbolic acting, and even (be forewarned!) bits of good ol' reliable audience participation, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS offers a seemingly non-stop barrage of laughs that rarely lets up. With this play, Bean has taken Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Italian Renaissance-era comedy The Servant of Two Masters, and has refashioned it into a modernized, hyperactive, fourth-wall-breaking stage marvel that joyfully combines wildly absurd dialogue, exaggerated theatrics, and physical comedy—all to dazzling, exhilarating results.
At times, the goofy situations—and the characters entrenched in them—are so intentionally far-fetched and ridiculous that it's extremely difficult to stifle even a mild chuckle at any point (for trivia buffs, the play is the very same West End/Broadway hit that made future Into The Woods/late night talk show sensation James Corden a Tony-winning stateside star). The play is so deliberately over-the-top in its pursuit of audience laughter—so much so that you feel compelled to laugh even when the occasional joke is just overly cheesy or if it goes over your head (admittedly, there were probably more than a few colloquial references I didn't quite catch—but partly perhaps because I was so busy laughing at the last gag, that I may have missed a few things).
Even from the get-go, the overarching, twisty plot that drives the madcap situations in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is itself already hilariously absurd. Simply put, the play—set in swingin' early 1960's-era Brighton in the UK—follows the amusing domino effect triggered by bumbling, easily perplexed Francis Henshall (played by the winning Dan Donohue), an id-controlled, perpetually hungry man who somehow ends up working for not one but two different employers: Roscoe Crabbe, a notorious gangster who has miraculously emerged from the shadows despite rumors of his murder; and Stanley Stubbers (William Connell) a wealthy, hoity-toity dandy—who happens to be on the run for, yep, being the dude responsible for Roscoe's supposed murder.
As past observations have humorously taught us, such situations have a way of unraveling, layer by uproarious layer, especially with additional complications thrown into the already brimming mix. Roscoe, it turns out, is indeed most sincerely dead—it's actually his twin sister Rachel (Helen Sadler) who's going around town disguised as her brother (and is, apparently, quite convincing at it).
And who happens to be Rachel's secret lover? Why, Stanley Stubbers, her brother's killer, of course!
Meanwhile local mobster Charlie "the Duck" Clench (Robert Sicular) is disappointed to learn that Roscoe is still alive—only because Charlie, as a portion of his payment towards his large debt, had previously promised to have his daughter—dimwitted, whiny-voiced Pauline (the super funny Sarah Moser)—be betrothed to Roscoe. Unfortunately, Pauline has fallen madly in love with uber-melodramatic wannabe actor Alan Dangle (awesomely hammy Brad Culver), to whom she plans to elope with as soon as possible.
For his part, Francis is doing his best to keep everyone's details straight—to disastrous results, natch. To keep up his dual-income ruse (and to satiate his uncontrollable appetite), he continues to concoct lie after lie to not only his two employers, but to... well... pretty much everyone he comes into contact, including his crush Dolly (Claire Warden), Charlie Clench's independent-minded bookkeeper.
Somehow, though the audience can certainly decipher the fibs a mile away, Francis' fellow citizens are buying everything he's selling... And despite being saddled with the kind of debilitating forgetfulness that also plagued short-term memory afflicted Dory in Finding Nemo, plucky Francis endures several close-calls as he struggles to keep one employer from discovering the existence of the other.
At certain points in the story, Francis even solicits assistance from members of the audience—whose varying degrees of enthusiasm (or reluctance) for being unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight is also a significant comical source of laughter.
In perhaps the show's ultimate showcase of high jinks, Francis—in a dizzyingly manic mash-up of pratfalls, improv, and lots of comical theatrical derring-do—attempts to cater to the separate dining needs of his two employers with the help of a couple of willing waiters: acerbic Gareth (Danny Scheie) and 87-year-old Alfie (scene-stealer Louis Lotorto), whose slow, shaky balance is furthered hindered by a rather temperamental pace-maker that threatens every subtle move he makes. Talk about comedy choreography!
Francis also "manages" to recruit a painfully nervous audience member (who looks like she's about to have a complete mental breakdown at any second) to help with the doomed dinner service—that, of course, does not end very well for all involved. But for the audience at least, the whole sequence had everyone bursting in collective laughter. The ending of that first act will have you howling, I guarantee it.
And, by the way, before the hilarity begins—as well as during, and even after the end of the production, as patrons file out of the theater—the play incorporates quirky musical interludes performed by a talented musical quartet referred to as "The Craze," the play's in-house, on-call band playing a style of music called "skiffle," a genre often played on homemade instruments and is influenced by jazz, folk music, blues, and country. Under Gregg Coffin's musical direction, the improvisational, down-home storytelling vibe of Grant Olding's original songs performed by the play's own fab four (Lead vocalist/guitarist Casey Hurt, Lead guitarist Mike McGraw, Bassist Marcus Högsta, and Washboard/Drummer Andrew Niven) are certainly a great compliment to the play's own spontaneous feel.
The production's rich visuals are top-notch as well: Meg Neville's bright and cool retro costumes look great against Hugh Landwehr's vintage Brighton set environments, all lit magnificently by Alexander V. Nichols.
But, admittedly, this British farce is truly engaging primarily because of its buoyant, crackerjack ensemble cast, whose silly antics and unwavering commitment to the material help sell even the most outlandish lines and situations. And, Donohue, naturally, is rightly the play's obvious star—a limber, infectious whirling tornado of kinetic energy, whose priceless, committed facial expressions and contorted, full-bodied performance pushes everything to the edge then back again. His unscripted, off-the-cuff interactions with the audience also add to the festive bubble of that theater.
Periodically, as I savored Donohue's exceptional performance, I was reminded a little of a younger Martin Short, particularly the comedy legend's comic fluidity in his earlier years.
But what really stands out with ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS is its intelligent design as a screwball comedy. You can tell the show has been brilliantly constructed and directed because even though much of it feels so improvisational and of-the-moment, you then realize every second of every scene has been, in reality, pre-planned with such pinpoint timing and execution, leaving just a little wiggle room for what may transpire with the inclusion of audience participation. Lemme tell ya... I seriously needed anxiety meds just to calm down from the hilarity of the first act closer, which all felt, at the moment, to be unbridled chaos (it all turns out better than you thought, thank goodness)! Man, I just love hearing the sound of that kind of continuous laughter.
And with this South Coast Repertory/Berkeley Repertory Theatre production, audiences are vividly reminded why ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS was a resounding, well-received hit in the first place. The play not only works really well in today's environment of hyper-aware, pop-culture-obsessed, self-referential entertainment, it's also a wonderful throwback to old British comedies. That kind of harmonious blending surely encourages exciting live theater! Catch this comedy gem in the OC while you still can!
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos courtesy of mellopix.com and South Coast Repertory.
Richard Bean's ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS—based on Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters and features songs by Grant Olding—continues its West Coast Premiere performances at South Coast Repertory through October 11, 2015. The play is a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.