The year’s most brilliant physical-comedy performance is but one of many reasons not to miss the West Coast Premiere of the West End/Broadway smash One Man, Two Guvnors, now inspiring more laughs per second than any play I can recall seeing at South Coast Repertory.
Playwright Richard Bean has transposed Carlo Goldoni’s Italian commedia dell’arte farce Servant Of Two Masters from its original 1746 time frame to 1963, set it in the English seaside resort of Brighton, converted Goldoni’s characters into British gangsters a la The Krays, and backed up the hilarity with an onstage mop-topped Beatles-esque boy band not so coincidentally called The Craze, all the while maintaining one commedia trademark after another throughout.
Goldoni’s Truffaldino has become Bean’s Francis Henshall (Dan Donohue), who like his 1740s Italian counterpart wants just one thing at the moment—a meal—and will do anything to get it, even if it means working for two masters (or two “guvnors,” as ‘60s Brits would put it).
Guvnor Number One is tough guy Roscoe Crabbe, played by Helen Sadler, and if the name Helen sounds suspiciously girly, it’s not because Roscoe happens (or more precisely happened) to be gay, it’s rather due to the fact that “Roscoe” is actually his twin sister Rachel, disguised in hopes of collecting a debt stilled owed by Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Robert Sicular) to her recently offed brother. (British gangster flick fans will recall that The Krays were identical twins, which a number of not terribly bright Two Guvnors characters keep insisting Roscoe and Rachel were.)
Meanwhile Charlie’s bubble-headed daughter Pauline (Sarah Moser)—who was Roscoe’s fiancée until his death just the day before yesterday—has announced her engagement to puffed-up actor Alan (Brad Culver), so named because so many “angry young men are writing plays about Alans.”
Imagine, then, Pauline’s dismay when who should show up like Lazarus from the grave but her dead departed betrothed himself (though in true Shakespearean fashion only we in the audience happen to notice that “Roscoe” is really a girl).
As for Rachel, well she has her own boyfriend, posh twit Stanley Stubbers (William Connell), and Stanley’s the one who murdered her twin sibling, well, nobody’s perfect, are they?
Enter Francis, who before long has gotten himself hired by both “Roscoe” and Stanley, the better to secure that illusive meal he so hungers for—if only he can keep his two employers clueless to his not terribly ethical double duty.
Did I mention that Francis has fallen head-over-heels for Charlie’s statuesque, well-endowed bookkeeper Dolly (Claire Warden)?
As is the case with any actual 18th-century commedia dell’arte, plot takes second place in Two Men, Two Guvnors to execution, which means an abundance of pratfalls and other assorted feats of commedia fisica, plenty of fourth-wall breaking, quite a bit of audience participation, and improvisation galore.
Above all there is Donohue’s magnificent lead performance as Francis, and if the tall, lanky Seattle native (so appealing as dimwitted “Doc” in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive at the Geffen earlier this year) is about the farthest thing physically from short-and-stout Englishman James Corden who originated the role in London, had it been Donohue and not Corden playing Francis on Broadway, it would doubtless have been a Yank who won the 2012 Best Actor Tony and not a Brit.
Among the abundance of inspired comedic bits likely to make One Man, Two Guvnors the OC’s most talked about play this fall is a trunk-lifting sequence so downright hilarious it is almost worth the price of admission.
There’s also an extended meal prep scene that just keeps getting funnier and funnier, and just about anything involving SoCal theater treasure Louis Lotorto as a pacemaker-dependent octogenarian waiter named Alfie deserves a standing ovation.
Under David Ivers’ inspired direction, there’s not a weak comedic link in South Coast Rep’s sensational cast of L.A. and out-of-town actors in this co-production with Berkeley Rep, where it played earlier this year.
In particular, L.A./Orange County theater buffs will marvel at seeing the chameleonlike Sadler morph from Cymbeline’s captivating Imogen at A Noise Within and the teen monster she played in South Coast Rep’s The Whale into a Roscoe so belivably boyishly sexy, he/she might just awaken same/opposite sex urges in those not normally so inclined.
Also meriting praise are Allen Gilmore (Lloyd Boateng), John-David Keller (Harry Dangle), Danny Scheie (Gareth), and ensemble members Todd Pivetti, A.J. Sclafani, Steven Shear, and (especially) Becca Lustgarten.
And then there’s The Craze, the abundantly talented, utterly engaging Casey Hurt (lead vocals and guitar), Mike McGraw (lead guitar), Marcus Högsta (bass), and Andrew Niven (percussion—including washboard—and drums), performing Grant Olding’s original songs (under Gregg Coffin’s expert musical direction) that not only take us from late-‘50s Skiffle to early-‘60s British Invasion but scored Olding a Best Score Tony nomination in a category usually reserved for bona fide musicals.
Last but not least, there’s Gerry McIntyre’s groovy musical staging (which is what choreography is called when it’s a play that’s getting choreographed).
One Man, Two Guvnors looks absolutely splendid on scenic designer Hugh Landwehr’s picture-postcard set, vibrantly lit by Alexander V. Nichols, with delectable period costumes by Meg Neville and a nifty sound design by Lindsay Jones.
Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA and Amy Potozkin, CSA. Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager and Joshua Marchesi is production manager.
Not only have I never seen anything quite like One Man, Two Guvnors, I may never have laughed so hard at South Coast Rep—two terrific reasons not to miss SCR’s supremely audience-pleasing 2015-16 season opener.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
September 22, 2105