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There are certain award-ceremony speeches everyone remembers. Roberto Benigni at the 1999 Oscars saying he wanted to make love to everyone in the room. Baby-faced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s boyish energy and creaky voices when they picked up their award for Good Will Hunting in 1997. And James Corden’s tearful acceptance speech and declarations of love at the 2012 Tony awards for his role in One Man, Two Guvnors. His speech lodged a space in my brain for this play—which I had not seen and knew little about—and my curiosity brought me to the current production here in Philly, from Quintessence Theatre Group.
No experiments needed
Based on Carlo Goldoni’s 1746 Commedia dell'arte classic The Servant of Two Masters, Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is a madcap romp through swinging ’60s Bristol, England. Debuting in 2011, the play has traditional theatrical sensibilities, like two acts with an intermission, and a proscenium-style setup (although the Sedgwick Theater is technically a black box). There’s nothing groundbreaking or experimental about the show.
But there doesn’t have to be. With its nods not just to the late-18th and mid-20th centuries, the play also honors the greats of British comedies, from masters of farce (Molière, Noel Coward, Neil Simon) to Mersey Beat music and modern sensibilities. It covers a lot of ground for a play that never pretends to make a statement. And it is very, very fun.
This production isn’t perfect. Given my short acquaintance with the play, it’s hard to know how much the apparent roughness of the show is in the script and how much in the direction and frequent ad libs. The cast’s British accents are all over the map—not just from actor to actor, but also across a few of the actors’ performances (and I’m not just talking about the actors who play more than one character). There are punchlines that fall pancake-flat.
But there is more good than bad here, and with so many jokes packed into the script—it seemed sometimes that the actors couldn’t go a line of dialogue without pausing for a laugh—it’s easy to forget the things that don’t work, in favor of the things that do.
The “one man” of the play’s title is Francis Henshall (Sean Close), a fourth-wall-breaking, out-of-work skiffle player who has found himself under the employ of two different bosses. Francis is driven by two things: his stomach and his… appendage below his stomach. And his interest—to the point of distraction—in food and sex drives most of the farce of the show.
As Francis, Close is a rakishly charming, never quite bright enough to be a lothario but still sweetly magnetic. His playful interactions with the audience are among the show’s highlights. Although he isn’t always likeable, it’s easy for the audience to root for him.
Francis agrees to serve both his guvnors with the expectation that he can keep them apart from one another, but screws up almost from the start. The first, Rachel Crabbe (Hanna Gaffney), is disguised as her dead brother, Roscoe. (This is not a spoiler—you learn this information about five minutes in.) The second is—surprise!—Rachel’s boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Jered McLenigan), the man behind Roscoe’s demise.
Gaffney and McLenigan are both excellent in these roles (Gaffney doubly so, as she has to play-act as Roscoe), talented enough that the gags regarding their appearance work well and that their over-the-top amorousness when they eventually reunite (again, not a spoiler—if you’ve seen even one farce, you know how this goes) is charmingly gross instead of off-putting.
The rest of the ensemble all have their moments, and none more so than Desmond Confoy, who plays a number of roles but shines as Alfie, the geriatric waiter at the pub where the play’s main action takes place. With crossed eyes and a distinctive walk, Confoy steals the show in his Alfie scenes. Jay Dunn (as the histrionic Alan Dangle, an aspiring actor) and Shea-Mikal Green (as Pauline Clench, Alan’s daft fiancée, previously betrothed to Roscoe Crabbe) also have moments of brilliant hilarity on stage; as Dolly, the feminist bookkeeper to Pauline’s father, Lee Minora is charming and ballsy.
Purely good fluff
In his director’s note, Trey Lyford notes that it feels at times like the world is crumbling around us—and that Quintessence’s decision to stage One Man, Two Guvnors helps us feel less alone, because we all understand how hard it is to juggle two masters.
This is a sweet sentiment. It’s also overly ambitious.
It’s okay to produce a comedy in 2019. We don’t have to feel closer to one another or find relatable characters. We just need to laugh. And One Man, Two Guvnors delivers. The play is pure fluff—there is, truly, very little substance to the script—but that’s okay. It’s just what these times call for.
What, When, Where
One Man, Two Guvnors. By Richard Bean, directed by Trey Lyford. Through June 30, 2019, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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