1st Stage, One Man, Two Guvnors, Five Stars.
Uproariously directed by Matthew R. Wilson, the madcap British farce, One Man, Two Guvnors, by Richard Bean, with songs by Grant Olding, is about a man who is trying to juggle two bosses. I loved it so much that I saw it twice this weekend, and I had a double-rollicking time.
This is due in large part to the warmth of Doug Wilder’s performance as Francis Henshall, the main character, a failed street musician who is trying to get enough money for some food. Wilder is outrageously funny and lovable, and some of his physical ‘feats’ are hilarious: a a simple toss of a piece of candy into the air and then catching it in his mouth, or an outrageous argument with himself, or flipping a bottle of crepe sauce, or an impressive backward somersault.
One Man, Two Guvnors opened in London in 2011 and won a UK Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play in 2012. It opened on Broadway in 2012 and James Corden won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. It is at its funniest when Francis seeks to maintain the deception so his two employers don’t know about each other. At one point each is dining in a separate room and they keep popping out to see what is taking him so long to serve. And when he’s reeled in an apparently unwitting member of the audience onstage to help with a soup tureen – well, you have to see it to believe it.
One Man, Two Guvnors is set in seaside Brighton, England, in 1963, but is based directly on an Italian play by Carlo Goldoni from the 1700s called A Servant of Two Masters. The latter is an example of commedia dell’arte, an Italian form of (often) outdoor theatre that was popular in Europe in the 1500-1700s. Professional actors perfected one type of character whom they always depicted, usually wearing masks. The style relied on improvisation within standard situations. In England, it was adapted to become the Punch-and-Judy Show.
Francis, the deviant servant, is one typical stock character, lovers are another.
One Man, Two Guvnors has two sets of lovers, and here is where the plot gets complicated. Basically a female twin impersonates her brother, Roscoe, a gangster who has been killed, to get some money that is owed to him. To collect, she visits the family of his fiancée, who has become engaged to someone else. Also in town and staying at the same place is her own lover, who also happens to be the person who murdered her brother. She and her lover are the two who, unbeknownst to each other, are both employing Francis. And, as you can imagine, chaos ensues!
And what a multi-talented group of actors Director Matthew Wilson has in his cast!
Katy Carkuff plays the twin, Rachel Crabbe, and she swaggers and gestures dangerously with a toothpick to menace her servant and anyone else she is trying to intimidate. She is outrageously funny when she forgets to talk in a baritone and also when she explains the difference between identical and fraternal twins.
Playing her lover, Stanley Stubbers, is Daniel Corey, whose quirkily overstated good posture identifies him as a more upper-class criminal. Corey’s face is pure elastic when he has to think on his feet, like when he makes up a fake name for himself and when he is questioned about whether Roscoe’s demise.
The vacuous fiancée, Pauline Clench, is played by Megan Graves, who has excellent comedic timing and makes really funny faces. Watch for her precise delivery when she is lying upside-down on a chair. This opens a delightful scene between her and Carkuff.
Charlie Retzlaff is Pauline’s new fiancé, Alan Dangle. The character is scripted to be a somewhat overwrought actor, and Retzlaff delivers with excellent Shakespearean-acting-style elocution, especially when he enters with a knife.
Pauline’s father, Charlie “The Duck” Clench, is played by Steve Beall, who successfully portrays a thuggish character and whose accent is spot-on.
Charlie’s friend, Lloyd Boateng, is played by DeJeanette Horne, who utilizes an effective Caribbean accent, and plays steel drums as well. His humor has a light touch.
Mark Lee Adams, who provides a nice ‘straight-man’ element, portrays Charlie’s lawyer (and Alan’s father), Harry Dangle.
Charlie’s bookkeeper, Dolly, is played by Bess Kaye, who effectively depicts the smartest character in the show as a liberated woman who is unafraid to be sexy and “get some.”
There is a band that plays and sings songs before the first act, after intermission and during scene changes, and its members double as minor characters. It is composed of Band Director Toby Mulford, a graduate of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, Noah Schaefer (who also plays Alfie, perhaps the purest comedia dell’arte character of them all), Jason Tamborini (who does a great “seen-it-all” policeman), and Jon Jon Johnson, who sings a lovely “Ballad of Ted and Calista” after intermission. Tamborini, Mulford and Johnson are especially good as waiters who move in unison and make funny noises as they careen in and out in a stylized fashion that is a real ‘scene stealer.’
The set design by JD Madsen depicts four scenes: the Clench’s living room, the street outside the pub where the guvnors are staying, a service hallway inside the pub, and the pier. Props by Cindy Landrum Jacobs include a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth and a striped wing chair for the living room. Costumes by Lynly A. Saunders include a confection of an orange flowered dress for Pauline complete with a hint of crinolines and bloomers. Harry Dangle’s tweed Norfolk suit was also outstanding. Sound Designer Neil McFadden provided automobile noise for the street scenes as well as some serious clattering when the waiters descended to the kitchen, and he teams up with Lighting Designer Kristin A. Thompson for some funny flourishes that help tell Lloyd Boateng’s backstory as an ex-con.
1st Stage’s delightful One Man, Two Guvnors is a great antidote for the holiday blues. The music of the string band alone is uplifting and full of holiday cheer. And you’ll have a blast as Wilder draws you and your fellow audience members into the show as co-conspirators to his deception, which transforms him, and somehow, us too!
One Man, Two Guvnors is a delectable holiday treat! Don’t just see it once-see it at least twice!
Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
One Man, Two Guvnors plays through December 28, 2014, at 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corner – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’: Part 1: Doug Wilder by Alex Levy.
Meet the Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’: Part 2: Megan Graves by Alex Levy.
Meet the Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’: Part 3: Noah Schaefer by Alex Levy.
Meet the Cast of 1st Stage’s ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’: Part 4: John Dellaporta by Alex Levy.
[Author’s note: A relative worked on the set crew for this show, but that did not influence my review.]