May 18, 2016
Farce can be a risky business for a
theatre company to pull off, primarily
because of potential pitfalls of silliness
or bits going flat. Happily, the Sheldon
Vexler Theatre turned to a proven
winner, British playwright Richard
Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)
as its season-closer and quite literally
left ’em laughing at the final curtain.
The comedy is drawn from the
celebrated 18th century Italian farce
Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo
Goldoni, which was based on the
Renaissance improvisational style
called commedia dell’arte.
Director Ken Frazier and his energetic
cast clearly relished putting this one
together. Not only does the piece
employ commedia conventions –
identities are mistaken, a lengthy
scene is quasi-mimed, and the central
character or Arlecchino breaks the
“fourth wall” by interacting with the
audience – it also involves a band of
street musicians playing during scene
In this case, it’s a delightful skiffle
band, the core being a washboard scraped or tapped with thimbles, an upright bass and two guitars, playing and singing infectious upbeat tunes written by famed British composer Grant Olding. Other simple instruments were added here and there, often played (or, um, attempted) by various cast members.
It’s pointless to attempt a plot outline, as it’s typically farcical with all the slamming doors and about-faces, rampant confusion and zaniness, not to mention pratfalls and other physical tomfoolery. Adding to the fun, everyone uses a Cockney accent (well, sorta).
The setting is 1963 in Brighton, England. At the play’s center is Joshua Goldberg, who turns in a tour de farce performance as Francis Henshall, a hefty, doltish fellow who finds himself employed as a sort of go-fer by two bosses: a well-to-do con man and a knife-wielding lowlife. Francis is always hungry, which sets up all sorts of madcap scenes (Would you believe trying to nibble stale cheese from a mousetrap?) and gives Mr. Goldberg a chance to flex his considerable physical chops and mobile face. His unscripted, quick-witted audience interaction is hilarious. Be warned, if you attend and sit on the front row, try to look inconspicuous.
(For fans of James “Carpool Karaoke” Corden, now host of The Late, Late Show on CBS, this was the role that he originated in London in 2011; the play moved to Broadway and earned him a best actor Tony in 2012.)
Sara Brookes shows real comic flair as Dolly, the buxom object of Francis’s attentions in the second act, after he has stuffed his face. Kaitlyn Jones is amusing as the dim-witted, slow-on-the-uptake Pauline, who is in love with Alan, a preening, insufferable actor (well-drawn by the constantly posing Robert Gonzales). Lawrence Coop is effective in his fairly straight role as Pauline's gangster father, Charlie, who has no use for Alan.
Erin Polewski is in male drag as Rachel Crabbe, the twin sister of Roscoe and pretending to be him. She/he is one of Francis’s bosses. It gets worse, Roscoe supposedly was killed by wealthy con man Stanley (Ben Scharff), the other of Francis’s “guvnors.” Moreover, Pauline used to be engaged to Roscoe, so the masquerading sister, Rachel, reveals herself to Pauline and swears her to secrecy. Later, Rachel drops her disguise and responds to people calling them identical twins with one of the cleverist “straight” speeches, defining fraternal and identical twins with plenty of use of the term zygote.
High marks for the most and best pratfalls go to Andrew Roland as Alfie, the elderly, bent-over waiter with an unreliable pacemaker, who keeps getting whacked in the head by doors and assorted props.
Ideally, an actor hopes to hit his mark and not bump into the furniture; in a farce, forget the rules. Mr. Frazier keeps things moving – and bumping – at a crazy tempo, especially when he picks up his washboard and assorted other percussion instruments as a member of “The Krazee Geezers” band. Who knew that, in addition to directing, acting and set design, he can paradiddle with panache?
The unique set design could have come from the pages of a charcoal sketch book: Backgrounds are white with black outlines, signs or portraits, depicting various Brighton interiors and exteriors, but there is color in the furnishings.
The production is wacky, to be sure, but is never unbearably silly. Risk successfully averted.
One Man, Two Guvnors runs Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through June 5 in the Sheldon Vexler Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. Call 302-6835.
Ben Scharff as Stanley Stubbers, Erin Polewski as Rachel/Roscoe Crabbe.
Photo: David Nobles