There is hardly a better time for enjoying a fix of frothy fun than high summer in South County. And with a five-week run of the fresh comedy “One Man, Two Guvnors” by Richard Bean, Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company once again invites us to partake in a hearty dose of laughter.
Bean’s play is a wild and goofy farce for the 21st century, improbably set in 1960s England, and based upon the 18th century Italian comedy “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldini. Originating in 2011 at London’s National Theatre, the show was an instant critical and popular smash hit in its home country before making an acclaimed run on Broadway, where it collected seven Tony nominations and three Drama Desk Awards. This play unabashedly mines comedy wherever it can find it, deploying slapstick and physical gags alongside witty zingers and tongue-twisting wordplay, and downright bulldozes the fourth wall with frequent asides and extended bits of audience interaction along the way.
The plot is a familiar far-fetched comic scenario involving a lovable (and very hungry) rube named Francis Henshall, who manages to stumble his way into the employ of two bosses, second-rate mobster rivals in a seedy seaside resort town. As Francis proves himself to be comically incompetent at keeping his two jobs straight – and his two “guvnors” and their entourages apart – everything starts to spin ridiculously out of control. Throw in mistaken identities, a twisted love triangle – and even a set of dizygotic twins – and you have a surprising recipe for some corkscrew hilarity.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” finds a comfortable home at Contemporary Theater Company. Where last year’s farce – Neil Simon’s “Rumors” – was a finely tuned and impeccably executed comic vehicle, “One Man, Two Governors” is a rowdy and impulsive juggernaut. Under the direction of Sami Avigdor, CTC’s production feels both loose and breezy, but also mercilessly and unstoppably funny.
It’s no wonder that this production plays so well with CTC’s troupe – led here by a cast of 12 various and sundry performers. As a faithful adaptation of an 18th century Italian comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors” indulges heavily in the tried-and-true comic conventions of commedia dell’arte. With CTC becoming a destination of some renown for improv comedy, its production strikes a balance between scripted comedy and commedia’s playful improvised tone. Indeed, if the show seems a bit rough around the edges at times, the performers seem to thrive on it, feeding as much off of the scripted gags and one-liners as the unpredictable live interaction with the audience.
Leading the cast (and audience) as the harlequin Francis Henshall, Rico Lanni’s performance is a tour-de-farce. Lanni’s lovable face and unctuous manner infuse the mischievous trickster with charm and charisma that win the audience over as soon as he stumbles onto stage. Things comes to a head at the end of the first act with a brilliant scene involving the famished Francis frantically attempting to serve meals to each of his bosses without being discovered, all the while trying to ease his own hunger. Remarkably, this extended slapstick bit leaves enough room for some hilarious banter between Lanni and an audience volunteer named Tina. For her part, Tina ends up abandoned on stage and ultimately has to be ushered out of the theater after a mishap involving crepes suzette and a large bucket of water. Lanni’s quick-witted and inventive audience interplay sets the tone for the show and allows cast and audience alike to dive into an enjoyable evening.
The supporting players are also given many opportunities to shine. CTC newcomer Sarah Reed gives a masterful debut performance in a gender-bending role as Rachel Crabbe (in disguise) as her twin brother, Roscoe. Tyler Brown shows comic range as Rachel’s boyfriend (and Francis’ new boss), Stanley Stubbers. The two enjoy some over-the-top trouser-dropping scenery chewing near the end of the show, and the pair is a highlight of the second act. Another delightful performer in her CTC debut is Alynne Miller as Dolly, bookkeeper to local mobster Charlie the Duck. The spirited and sassy Miller enjoys some delicious audience repartee during the second act, as she becomes the focus of Francis’ love interest. Add a few hammy moments for Ezra Jordan as head waiter Gareth and Jeremy Chaing as the bumbling octogenarian busboy Alfie, and there is an ensemble built for wall-to-wall laughs. Here, Avigdor wrings a free-wheeling and boisterous performance out of the cast, which goes a long way in interpreting Bean’s British comedy for the American audience.
Indeed, there is, at times, an uncomfortable tension between the play and its Americanization. The seedy characters and Brighton location are actually particularly well-rendered in an East Coast milieu, replete with Jersey accents. However, some bits occasionally fail to translate and come across as a little tedious or offbeat. Nevertheless, even the pratfalls that miss their mark are somehow at home given the show’s anarchic and clowning tone. In fact, there’s even a recurring bit of corny alliterated word play that proved a hit with the audience, primed by ringleader Lanni for a laugh.
The set, a wide and angular design with three doors, gives plenty of room for the play’s door-slamming action, although the pacing is at times disrupted by lengthy scene changes. Costumer Witt Tarantino has a lot of fun with the flamboyant costumes and hairstyles of the era, gesturing to Mod style and the Swinging ’60s, but placing in proper context among two-bit gangsters in the shabby seaside resort location.
At its heart, CTC’s production of “One Man, Two Guvnors” overflows with frisky, feel-good fun. With loads of wit and savage one-liners to accompany the physical and situational humor, CTC’s show feeds the audience with easy laughter, hard-earned, which might be the perfect summer treat for just about anyone this time of year.