Guest Critic by Andrea Simakis
There are moments in the entertaining, but uneven One Man, Two Guvnors, now playing at Bratton Theater through Aug. 11, that are so utterly goofy, you can’t stop smiling.
Most are courtesy of one Francis Henshall, a dim but irresistible clown played with elastic proficiency by Alex Morf.
In this freshened-up version of The Servant of Two Masters, an Italian play by Carlo Goldoni that was reportedly all the rage in 1753, Francis attempts to haul an employer’s leaden trunk offstage, using a wall as leverage and, in a great bit of gravity-defying buffoonery, walks up it — backwards.
British comedian Richard Bean adapted Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte concoction for the West End in 2011, and brought it to Broadway in 2012.
The show was a hit on both shores, but its landing at Chautauqua is rockier.
The production uses improvisation, broad characterizations and wild physical and verbal comedy in service of a downright ridiculous plot.
It’s 1963, in the seaside town of Brighton, and Francis, having been fired from his gig as a trombone player in a skiffle band, is in search of a new job. (It’s useful to know that one late 1950s skiffle band grew into none other than the Beatles.)
Francis, hungry and broke, lucks into being hired by Rachel Crabbe, played by Kayla Kearney, a woman posing as her dead gangster twin, Roscoe, who has been dispatched by Rachel’s sadomasochistic lover, Stanley Stubbers (Rishan Dhamija, who’s built for comedy, with eyes that pop like an evil toon’s from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”).
Rachel is trying to extract the payment promised to Roscoe upon his marriage to Pauline Clench (María Gabriela Rosado González), the daughter of shady businessman Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Daniel Pearce). She and Stanley need the cash to escape the long arm of the law by fleeing to Australia. But Pauline is heartbroken when a disguised Rachel appears to claim Pauline as “his” bride. That’s because Pauline has fallen for Alan Dangle (Kieran Barry, chomping scenery with glee), a young man everyone pegs on sight as the pompous actor he is.
The trouble for our hapless hero starts when, while in the employ of Rachel, Francis runs into Stanley, on the lam and seeking a man to haul his trunk around and fetch his mail. So Stanley, unbeknownst to Rachel, also hires Francis.
Are you still following? It hardly matters. What counts are the unhinged happenings as poor Francis tries to serve two masters, sneak in a meal and woo Dolly (a fetchingly curvy and rather spectacular Kelsey Deroian) while he’s at it. In a recurring comic trope in the first act, everything that can get in the way of his filling his belly does, forcing him to desperately chow down on one of Stanley’s letters. (“It’s a bit dry,” Francis observes. “Could do with a bit more ink.”)
“You’re not exactly a Swiss watch, are you?” Stanley notes at one point.
In one marvelous sequence, a perpetually confused Francis has an internal battle with himself that begins as a war of words — “You’re a role model for village idiots everywhere,” Francis tells himself — and quickly escalates into a schizophrenic brawl as Francis not only throws punches at and nearly strangles himself, but drags himself across the stage by his ankles. (It seems impossible, I know, but I promise you, it happened.)
It’s during live-wire scenes like this that the Chautauqua Theater Company production, directed by Andrew Borba, really sings, humming with gonzo possibilities.
And speaking of singing, a top-notch quartet (let’s call them the Fab Four for fun), with music director Tommy Crawford on lead guitar, provides rollicking musical interludes. The musicians bust out Beatles-like favorites using a mixture of traditional instruments (banjo and upright bass), and household items (washboards and spoons). They capture the period’s skiffle sound, a fusion of jazz, blues and American folk, and lend spontaneity and joy to the production.
These strengths almost mitigate the show’s unevenness, borne out in its overall pacing and some of its physical comedy.
The cast is more than up to the rapid-fire wordplay and comic timing required to pull off the ba-da-bing one liners. Take, for example, this exchange between Stanley and Alan:
“Are you an actor?” Stanley asks.
“Does it show?” Alan responds hopefully.
“The way you stand, at an angle. As if there’s an audience, over there,” Stanley answers, pointing at the audience.
But the choreography of the actors’ bodies rarely matches the nimbleness of their tongues. The play should be a whirlwind of fisticuffs and pratfalls, the gags unfolding with the precision of that Swiss watch Stanley mentioned. Here, the gears of this farce machine are gummy and move too slowly.
This is especially evident in fight scenes and a scene involving Francis and two waiters, one of whom is Alfie, an elderly chap with a pacemaker (Alex Brightwell). At first, Alfie moves with the sluggishness of a bad Wi-Fi connection, his hands shaking dangerously as he delivers a tureen of soup. The joke is that when Francis or others turn up his pacemaker, Alfie transitions in an octogenarian whirling dervish. But the sequence feels far longer than it should and forced rather than freewheeling, never living up to its breakneck promise. (Broadway had the services of a physical comedy director, an expense that paid great dividends.)
Another rough patch: The night I saw the show, I caught ensemble members walking around backstage.
Delightfully, One Man, Two Guvnors often has actors breaking the fourth wall to address the crowd, and audience participation is encouraged. But I don’t think actors randomly strolling past the wings were what Goldoni, or Bean, had in mind.
Andrea Simakis is a theater critic and columnist for The Plain Dealer.