Seinfeld was famously a television show about nothing. But before there was Seinfeld, there was farce.
Of course, one might argue that Seinfeld was really a riff on the banal indignities of urban life, or a testament to the importance of friendship. By the same token, one might regard Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, a 2011 vaudevillian British farce adapted from Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters, as a commentary on the folly of human appetites.
But that would be too cerebral by far. Set in the resort town of Brighton, England, in 1963, and featuring music hall-inspired songs by Grant Olding, this show has little on its brain but the urge to entertain. Under the direction of Trey Lyford, Quintessence Theatre Group amps that urge to the max, employing broad physical humor, spirited improvisation, and lewd costuming to wring out laughs.
Some of the humor is necessarily lost in (cultural) translation. The juxtaposition of Australia and opera doesn’t seem nearly funny enough to merit three mentions. And a deliberately anachronistic dig at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s undermining of the social welfare state — two decades or so in the future — no doubt landed with greater force for British audiences.
The idea of a woman so empty-headed it renders her irresistible is another conceit that doesn’t wear well. That woman is Pauline Clench (Shea-Mikal Green), promised to (the murdered and gay) Roscoe Crabbe in a marriage of convenience, but in love with the actor Alan Dangle (Jay Dunn). At their engagement party after Roscoe’s death, Alan declares: “This is why I love her. She is pure, innocent, unsoiled by education, like a new bucket.”
At the center of One Man, Two Guvnors is the titular man, Francis Henshall, who takes on two bosses (“guvnors”) and proceeds to mix up their business and property (from letters to trunks to meals) to presumably hilarious effect. The audience may have an analogous problem keeping all the characters and their entanglements straight.
It helps that Sean Close, one of Philadelphia’s comic treasures, inhabits the role of Henshall with loose-limbed grace and a quick wit. (As the character Harry Dangle says: “This man is a clown.”) Close’s drafting of unwitting audience members — at least they swore afterward that they were unwitting — into the action is a big part of the fun. Tip: You might want to avoid a front-row or aisle seat if you don’t want to be twitted or dragged to the stage.
Henshall’s two guvnors are Stanley Stubbers (Jered McLenigan) and Rachel Crabbe (Hanna Gaffney). The latter, in a bit of Shakespearean gender-bending, dresses up as her (deceased) twin brother Roscoe. One of the show’s beaten-to-a-pulp recurring bits is confusion about the distinction between identical and fraternal twins.
McLenigan goes unabashedly full-throttle as Stanley, in love with the elusive Rachel. The third truly winning performance is by Lee Minora as Dolly, who may be destined to end up with Henshall.
Playwright Bean throws just about everything he can into the comic blender. Among his more erudite references is an homage to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the conveniently invented personage of Paddy. The part is assumed by a totally recognizable Henshall (which is to say Close), complete with the requisite Irish inflections.