In a world where we entertain ourselves by tuning in, nightly, to news reports of the most unpredictable and unimaginable horrors, it is comforting that when we absent ourselves from the tube to take in a show, the evening’s fare reveals that our sense of humor is perhaps the one remaining predictable thing about us, and in a sweetly atavistic sort of way. That is to say, we still laugh at the kind of jokes that made Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia del’arte “The Servant of Two Masters,” a hit. It is reimagined here as Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” set in the faded seaside town of Brighton, England, and directed skillfully by David Ivers. The cast of characters is a chowder of gullible, bristling and scheming ladies, and narcissistic, scamming, and pompous men, and the script, is a recipe for lampooning them, as well as the Queen (It’s British), and the hypocrisy ad absurdum associated with law, religion, and social class.
The evening opens with a musical group playing a washboard, two guitars, a bass, and later in the evening, drums, a xylophone, and bicycle horns. The music is a somewhat brackish stew of country, rock, and folk, sprinkled with bits of doggerel. It is the prelude to the opening of Act I, an engagement party for the Courrèges-outfitted Pauline, who will marry the actor Alan, in lieu a twin who is rumored to have been both gay and dead. The Brixton Gaol is cited somewhat sentimentally as the one institution that connects all the characters, the place where everything sacred or profane was first learned, felt, or put into practice.
Jokes are not by needs brilliant. On the contrary, mediocrity is its own advocate here, and we are easily coaxed into seeing the humor in it, especially with lines such as, “What’s a nemesis?” Answer: “Might be a Toyota,” or, when Alan asks in response to Rachel being praised in purple prose, “Am I to marry mixed metaphors?” Then there is the philosophical toasting of the couple, that declares, “Love passes through marriage like s—t through a small dog.” Later, at a restaurant, “Would you like to eat al fresco?” “No, a la carte, please.”
Rachel (Helen Sadler) poses as her gay, dead twin Roscoe. She loves Stanley (William Connell), the alleged (and admitted) murderer, and so we have a Romeo and Juliet-like schism that the play must set about repairing. If two decades ago, the letters “BBC” spelled Benny Hill for you, and were a prompt to get up and turn the TV to another channel, you’ll see Benny everywhere in this romp, but this time, you’ll remain seated, in fact doubled over in your seat, laughing until the headache your seat-mate left the house with is gone and forgotten.
In spite of the actors in their majority being Yanks, there is not a one who fails to convince us that he or she is not only British, but hails from their designated original region or home town in England. All have the canniest of timing, and deliver straight lines and gags as if they were summonses, so that you take them perfectly seriously until you can’t stand it, and shriek out loud.
Sight gags abound, some of then unsightly, such as when the incomparably hilarious Dan Donohue, as the very hungry Francis Henshall, attempts to cadge a piece of cheddar from a mousetrap, and ends up with his tongue in its maws, and the trap’s platform an extension of his tongue.
If laughter is the best medicine, then take “One Man, Two Guvnors” on a world tour of hospitals to heal the infirm.