Lyric Stage's "One Man, Two Guvnors": Give a Little Skiffle

Lyric Stage’s first production of the current season (its fortieth year of bringing great theater to Boston),“One Man, Two Guvnors”, gets the fall theater schedule off to a rousing start. Based on the classic Italian commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Goldoni, “A Servant of Two Masters”, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation by Richard Bean, even down to its frequent asides to the audience, with most of the original plot left intact. (It’s no wonder the Tony Awards committee argued over its decision to consider it an original play or a revival; they opted for the former, but really should have chosen the latter). When it was first announced as Lyric’s season opener, the news was met with decidedly mixed anticipation. Farce, with its rigid demands for precision, timing and tone, is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and oh so easy to ruin. Happily, in the ever capable hands of Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and local treasure Neil A. Casey in the lead role, farce has survived intact. Some may compare this work to the like of “Noises Off!”, but its closest kin might well be the inspired zaniness of the British television series “Fawlty Towers” at its faultless best.

With its mistaken identities, gender switches, pratfalls, and other such tricks of the slapstick trade, the play defies synopsis without giving away too much of its inherent pleasures. Casey, as the scheming “one man”, Francis Henshall, serving two employers simultaneously, appears to be having the time of his life in this role of a lifetime. His juggling of the overlapping duties and interconnected love stories of the play must be seen (and not described) to be enjoyed. He’s ably surrounded by a terrific cast that includes his two “guvnors”, Stanley Stubbers (Dan Whelton) and Crabbe (McCaela Donovan), a pair of star-crossed lovers named Pauline Clench (Tiffany Chen) and Alan Dangle (Alejandro Simoes), their fathers Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Dale Place) and Harry Dangle (Larry Coen), and the hysterically funny long-in-the-tooth waiter Alfie (John Davin). Their names alone are fodder for fun, worthy of that other fine British playwright Alan Ayckbourn as are other characters with such monikers as Lloyd Boateng (Davron S. Monroe) and Gareth (Harry McEnerny V), as well as a barman (Chuong Pham) and a policeman (James Blaszko). There’s also yet another standout performance as the manager Dolly by the incredibly versatile Aimee Doherty, who also plays a mean set of spoons.

It‘s about those spoons. They‘re a staple of popular British musical performances known as “skiffle”, which is music (jazz, country, folk, and other genres) using unusual instruments such as spoons, jugs, kazoos, washboards, ukulele, harmonica, steel drums and the like. With some fifteen numbers (written by Grant Olding specifically for the show and actually released on a CD), this could easily be considered as a musical. (Ah, let us once again pity those Tony Award committee members). They’re played and sung by members of the cast and a live, visible band under the direction of Catherine Stornetta. The technical elements are all cleverly on the money, including the Scenic Design by Matthew Whiton, Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

As noted above, it’s so tempting to take slapstick and run with it; it takes real discipline and practice to do physical comedy without giving in to the natural inclination to overdo. Kudos are due to this cast and its creative team for delivering such low comedy on such a high level. The play may take a rather lengthy time for the set-up, but the pay-off is well worth it.

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