One Man, Two Guvnors
photo by Curtis Brown Photography
Through Feb. 26
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh
If you doubt that One Man, Two Guvnors
, the theatrical time trip on offer at Raleigh Little Theatre, is up to the minute, take a moment to consider the number of jobs you have to work to make a living wage. If n > 1, then you, like me, are in the same boat as Francis, the play's central character.
Richard Bean’s 2011 farce is an update of The Servant of Two Masters
, Carlo Goldoni’s eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte classic. Thus Francis (an energetic Jesse R. Gephart) is roughly based on Arlecchino, or the harlequin character: an always entertaining servant whose perpetual poverty and hunger have turned him into something of a trickster figure, forced to live by his cunning.
This and other similarly lighthearted depictions of the working poor may be far less amusing when examined in the light of conscience. Still, One Man
was theatrical catnip when it opened in 2011, taking the West End by storm and playing on Broadway the following year. But entertainment industry superlatives were scarce for both runs—no Olivier Awards in London, a lone best-actor Tony for late-night comedian James Corden in New York—strongly suggesting a work whose main strengths derived from its performers.
That isn’t much of a shock for a work so reliant on physical comedy, nor for a farce whose central character borrows the patter and other onstage business of another venerable theatrical throwback: the music hall. Craig Johnson’s skiffle band reinforces that connection as it serenades us through each scene break, even if it’s rarely loose enough to convince us of its street-legal busking roots.
Designer Jenny Mitchell’s witty costumes and Thomas Mauney's set were faithful to the period. But if such an enterprise largely rests on the strength of its performers, this production, directed by Rod Rich, is frequently in a state of unrest. Overall, the sometimes flimsy acting and unconvincing English accents fail to persuade us that we’ve landed among a group of underworld ne’er-do-wells in Brighton, a British beach town, in 1963.
Here’s the problem: commedia and farce are based on exaggeration, as we see in some of these characters. Pauline (Amy White), for example, the daughter of a local gangster kingpin, is very beautiful—and very dim-witted—as a bride-to-be. Her intended, Alan (Gus Allen), an actor wannabe, is melodramatic. Gareth (C. Aaron Alderman), a maître’d' and the only other character we fully bought in this production, is very snooty. Alfie, a pratfall-prone waiter (Dustin Britt), is very old.
Unfortunately, during last Sunday’s matinee, other performances were underinflated, particularly for commedia. There was nothing outsize—and not a teaspoon of believable menace—in the father of the bride, head hoodlum Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Ron Mitchell). While other supporting roles, including the crusading Rachel (Kirsten Ehlert) and the tough Dolly (Diana Cameron McQueen), seemed headed in the right direction, most remained frustratingly life-size, or little more. In farce, that’s a dilemma.
Though Gephart poured admirable energy into this vehicle (particularly in the audience-participation sections), too many wheels too low on air reduced the show’s mileage and momentum. But then, as Bean and Goldoni remind us, when you’re just One Man
, only so much can be done.