by Hugh Hunter
“One Man Two Guvnors” (2011) by Richard Bean re-imagines “The Servant of Two Masters” (1746), by Carlo Goldoni. But the infectious show at Quintessence Theatre under director Trey Lyford, a Fringe Theater veteran, is more homage to English music hall than tribute to commedia dell’arte.
Sean Close shines as the star harlequin, a trickster now named Francis Hershall. An unemployed skiffle band performer, Francis pawns himself off on two guvnors, Rachel Crabbe (Hanna Gaffney, dressed up as slain twin brother, Roscoe) and Stanley Stubbers (Jered McLenigan), a killer on the lam.
“One Man” retains Goldoni’s core run-on gag: Francis tries to end his starvation even as he delivers food to his two masters, then struggles to keep them apart. Francis deceives them both, but Rachel and Stanley have desperate, entertaining deceptions of their own.
The others are not big-time schemers, just bit players adrift in caricature, private worlds. Two fathers, ex-con Charlie “The Duck” (Paul Hebron) and his lawyer Harry (Brian McCann), have a comically dishonest relationship. Alan (Jay Dunn) and Pauline (Shea-Mikal Green) are misfit lovers. Bookkeeper Dolly (Lee Minora) is a coy and worldly vixen. Lloyd (Steven Wright) is another ex-con turned pub owner and sometime song-and-dance man. Alfie (Desmond Confoy) is a waiter and everyone’s punching bag.
Bean relocates Goldoni’s plot to 1963 Brighton Beach, just an hour from London where people have a chance to be naughty. Though much of the original story is still there, you scarcely notice it as music hall shindigs take over. Jay Purdy, a one-man skiffle band, entertains with the ensemble often joining in. Music and incessant madcap chase sequences are woven into the entire show, and the actors exaggerated stage movements are hilarious.
Recurring gags and slapstick episodes are rife. Heavy trunks are multi-purpose props, pratfalls abound, food catches fire, is spilled or thrown, a pacemaker malfunctions, clothes are ludicrous. The show is also full of audience engagement (one critic was chided for taking notes), and unsuspecting onlookers are sometimes taken on stage.
Bean’s script has a goodly share of wit and wordplay, as in several sequences where almost every word begins with “D” alliterations, (“…diagnosed with diarrhea but died of diabetes in Dagenham.”) And speaking in 1963, characters take playful jabs at the historical present: one expresses relief that people will never have portable phones. Another character thinks in 20 years we might have a woman prime minister; how great it would be to have someone finally sympathetic to the poor.
There is not much Goldoni is all this, but there is a boatload of uproarious Monty Python, and along with all the immersive musical hall cheer, a demand that you not take yourself or the world too seriously.
Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “One Man Two Guvnors” will run through June 30. For reservations, visit QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.