One Man, Two Guvnors
The Lyric Stage Company takes audiences back to 1963 Brighton, England, with a farce about an arranged marriage, a killer on the lam, and a cross-dressing sister passing as her twin brother.
But in actuality, this production of Richard Bean’s "One Man Two Guvnors" is, as any mounting of the play must be, a slightly reimagined version of a much earlier work, "Servant of Two Masters" by Carl Goldoni, a Venetian who wrote the original in 1743.
The plot is almost identical: When a tough customer (and closet gay) named Roscoe Crabbe is knifed to death, his fiancée, a rather dim girl named Pauline Tiffany Chen), is free to marry the man she loves -- an aspiring actor named Alan (Alejando Simoes), whose everyday demeanor is one of high drama. He’s a twit, but he adores her, especially for her blankness of mind which he lovingly compares to an empty thermos. (Now, that’s romance.)
Pauline’s father, Charlie "The Duck" Clench (Dale Place) -- like Roscoe, a shady sort whose past includes a stint in prison -- had arranged Pauline’s marriage to Roscoe. With Roscoe’s death, there’s no reason to withhold his permission for Alan to take his daughter’s hand, and at any rate, the parsimonious Duck reasons, he’s already bought the canapés for the engagement party.
The party is in full swing when Roscoe Crabbe arrives, expecting the fete to be for himself and Pauline. Flummoxed at Roscoe’s seeming resurrection, Duck agrees to break Pauline’s engagement to Alan (sending the young actor into a highly dramatic snit) and ensure her marriage to Roscoe.
However, Roscoe is in fact Rachel Crabbe (McCaela Donovan), who has donned her brother’s clothing and identity in order to secure money from Duck, and also to search for her brother’s killer... not for revenge, mind you, but in order to run away with him to Australia. As it happens, it’s none other than Rachel’s lover, Stanley (Dan Whelton), who has done Roscoe in. Since she’s in love with Stanley, Rachel is willing to let bygones be bygones, but first she has to find him.
Roscoe’s "batman" -- i.e., hired man -- is Francis Henshall (Neil A. Casey), a lackey who will pretty much do any kind of work for food. Driven by his perpetual hunger (it’s been hours since his last meal!), Henshall readily falls into the employ of an out-of-towner he meets at a hotel. Realizing that he’s got a very complicated work situation now that he’s contracted himself out to two bosses (or "guv’nors"), Henshall ties himself into knots trying to see to both of their needs. This leads to, among other things, mixed-up money envelopes, half-devoured letters, and a dinner scene you won’t want to watch while actually eating your concessions lest you choke in gasps of laughter on that square of chocolate (or bite of, er, hummus sandwich).
As problems and improbable excuses mount, Henshall covers himself by blaming various problems of a fictional associate named "Paddy" (whom he impersonates as an outrageous Irish stereotype). But the thorniest problem he blames on Paddy is his own infatuation with a randy feminist named Dolly (Aimee Doherty).
The humor is quite British. Even if that’s not your thing, you’re still in for a treat: Director Spiro Veloudos understands that the play succeeds or fails on the strength of the actor playing Henshall, and he’s struck gold in the casting of Neil A. Casey, whose impeccable timing and comic chops make him the center of the play’s antic gravity.
If Casey is the play’s anchor, he’s got some real talent in his orbit: in addition to Simoes (hilarious in last year’s "The Motherfucker With the Hat," and very funny in a completely different role here), Doherty, Chen, and Dale, Harry McEnerny pop in and out of the action. McInerney, who impressed last season in "Of Mice and Men," plays a number of characters, as does James Blaszko, John Davin rounds out the cast in a tour de force of physical comedy as a superannuated waiter named Alfie. Davrin S. Monroe also appears, as an old friend both of Rachel and Charlie; he brings a twinkle to the production.
The play features a set of 15 early ’60s tunes that recall the heyday of the Beatles and a vanished sense of glamour (especially when Doherty, Donovan, and Chen appear in period dresses and hairdos to warble as a trio). The songs are lively, and a number of them are performed outside of the narrative’s context (before the start, or during intermission), which is just as well since by and large they have nothing to do with the story.
"One Man, Two Guvnors" proves that commedia dell’arte isn’t a dead form after all (and farce can be more than a watered-down modern equivalent). Bean succeeds in updating the material while keeping its core intact, and Veloudos masterfully presents this so-very-British play to his New England audience with just the right winks and nods.
"One Man, Two Guv’nors" continues through Oct. 12 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, located on the second floor of the YWCA Building on the corner of Clarendon Street and Stuart Street. For tickets and more information, please visit the Lyric Stage Website.