Who knew that something that sounds as classy as commedia dell’arte could be so belly-laugh hilarious as well as somewhat unnerving and a bit exhausting.
But that’s the case with “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a 2012 British farce being given its regional premiere by the Forum Theatre.
The Tony-winning comedy by Richard Bean, with some incidental skiffle-band rock by composer Grant Olding, is an updated version of the 18th-century Italian commedia dell’arte classic “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni.
It’s set in Beatles-era 1963 in the seaside getaway of Brighton, England, rather than 1740s Venice, but it is populated by the same comic archetypes created by Goldoni, from the tricky servant Harlequin to the crafty master Pantalone to the star-crossed, often clueless young lovers the Innamorati.
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Here, it’s become a complex gangster romp surrounding a shlubby handyman named Francis, who is motivated only by his appetite of the moment, whether that be hunger or hormones. Because of his greed and lack of foresight, he finds himself in the awkward position of being hired out as personal assistant to two rival gangsters at the same time. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything, of course. Hilariously so. And once the pratfalls, double-takes, chasing around and door-slamming begin, sorting out the silly plot lines of murder, payoffs, mismatched couples and an impending wedding becomes less and less relevant to our enjoyment.
Under the direction of Kathryn Page Hauptman, it’s all about the slapstick journey, which always threatens to careen out of control (and sometimes does). There’s even an audience participation bit that becomes so outrageous that it brings gasps of horror as well as roll-on-the-floor hilarity.
And it all works because of Steven Hitchcock’s brilliant physical shtick as Francis. He’s the oblivious sun around which all the other characters rapidly orbit (and often collide). Wearing a fat suit to give him comic, roly-poly heft, Hitchcock is fearless as he throws himself into countless stumbles, bumbles, falls and run-ins with trunks, walls and doors.
He’s also shameless in breaking the fourth wall and bantering – and sometimes arguing – with people in the audience. The play is very self-aware of its literary antecedents, and Hitchcock underscores it with delicious, goofy, rubber-faced abandon. He’s both a clown and a gadfly. Even when he embarrasses some audience members, Hitchcock’s innate likability manages to smooth things over.
Trying to keep up with Hitchcock are Mark Mannette as big-time bad-guy Charlie “The Duck” Clench; Huron Breaux as Charlie’s all-purpose chauffeur, chef and hitman, Lloyd; Paul Jackson as Charlie’s insufferably erudite lawyer, Harry; and Sarah Gale McQuery as Charlie’s wise-cracking Dolly-Parton-like secretary, Dolly.
All have some fleeting, highlight moments (McQuery is a staunch feminist as well as a sexpot, and Breaux fondly remembers his first love – in prison), but they are all essentially just kinetic scenery.
Brian Welsby as arrogant preppy conman Stanley and Molly Tully, who does double duty as Rachel and her gangster twin brother Roscoe, are a bit more successful. As the main Romeo and Juliet of the piece, they have to overcome murder, impersonation and settling a debt on their road to happiness. Welsby has a frantic funniness, and Tully, who spends most of the play in drag as Roscoe, has an attractive (if never really convincing) machismo.
Ted Dvorak and Courtney Linville are amusing as clueless young adults whose wedding is being arranged by their gangster fathers. Clint McCorkle and, particularly, Elizabeth Dary are remarkable scene-stealers in a variety of memorable minor roles.
But it is veteran Tom Frye as the ancient, creaky waiter named Alfie who really holds his own with Hitchcock, particularly in a dining room scene in which they play off each other. With a tiny, shuffling gait, Frye takes forever to cross the stage, but he plunges headlong – literally – into vigorous pratfalls. He and Hitchcock have a wonderfully attuned comic choreography.
Ben Juhnke’s set sometimes wasn’t up the challenge of people falling against it. And the five-member combo called The Craze that played during scene changes was a little loud for the auditorium and out of balance with the rest of the show.
In classic commedia dell’arte fashion, the actors occasionally joined the combo, either singing or playing a specialty instrument for an added solo surprise. All worked fine except for a bunch of horns you’d expect to see in front of a circus seal. Honk if you find the melody.