One Man, Two Guvnors Is South Coast Rep's Latest Triumph

About 15 minutes into One Man, Two Guvnors Saturday night, someone's mind went wandering. It wasn't because that person was bored, but because he was reminded of the funniest show he'd ever seen: a staged version of The Cocoanuts last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an uproarious, improv-laden take on the play that inspired the Marx Brothers' 1929 film.

So, imagine that someone's non-surprise when he perused the Two Guvnors program at intermission and discovered director David Ivers had also directed the Oregon show. The similarities between them—the hell-bent energy, the freedom for actors to feed off the audience, that precarious balance between pushing material to the cliff's edge only to reel it in at the last possible instance, the robust physical comedy—do not indicate a lack of vision on Ivers' part. It's the imprint of a legit theatrical artist, and anyone who directs on local stages and thinks the only role a director plays is to cast well and make sure the actors' faces can be seen should check out this show. In fact, everyone should. It's that good and that funny.

It starts with the script. Richard Bean loosely based the play on Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century commedia dell'arte work The Servant of Two Masters. We get the stock commedia characters: the perpetually starving clown/fool, the miserly patriarch of the house, the bumbling academic, the ridiculously in-love lovers. But that's just the base of Bean's recipe, which he updates to early-1960s England and fills with puns and comic asides and rips on everything from Australia's apparent adoration of opera to England's ongoing austerity program. Ivers takes that recipe, dumps it in a pressure cooker, pours lighter fluid on it, and then ignites it, resulting in a production that is in mad, passionate love with itself, something that is deliriously infectious for the audience.

Dan Donohue's Francis Henshall is the show's engine. And Donohue, a versatile performer with a ridiculous number of credits, attacks it with wicked vigor. He bears more than a passing resemblance to a normal-statured Conan O'Brien, but he draws heavily on such Marx Brothers-like eccentricities as Groucho's droll wit, Chico's chicanery and Harpo's naive absurdity. He's basically the ringleader of this show—with his insatiable hunger driving the first act, his amorous inclinations the second—as he haplessly tries to fulfill the directives of two masters, Stanley (William Connell) and Rachel (Helen Sadler), lovers on the run from the law. Donohue frequently breaks character, not only addressing the audience, but also plucking people from the crowd, and he does so with such ease it's easy to forget the guy is working his ass off.

In fact, this entire show sweats, grunts and strains, a shining embodiment of the theatrical adage that dying is easy, comedy is hard. The beauty is that it never seems like it, thanks to polished performances and a masterful directorial game plan. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention to the scene-stealing Brad Culver as Alan, a deathly serious Actor; Connell's ridiculously British Stanley; and Louis Lotorto's Alfie, a pacemaker-wearing, deaf and addled servant who does his best Tim Conway as the butt of most of the pratfalls and door collisions.

There's also a live skiffle-ish band, the Craze (Casey Hurt, Mike McGraw, Marcus Hogsta and Andrew Niven), who are onstage nearly all the time, performing songs by Grant Olding. Less a chorus that reflects on what's happening than its own entity, the band serve to sustain the tone of a play set in the beach-town resort of Brighton.

Establishing that tone, as well as keeping it, is another masterstroke by Ivers. Rather than veering into grotesque period caricature à la Austin Powers, whatever substance is in an admittedly goofy riff on an 18th-century farce—rigid class definitions, young love clashing against patriarchal social order, confining societal roles—is kept and translated into a period in which sexual and youth revolutions are challenging the status quo. While this play is obviously geared for the funny bone, there is enough method to the rampant madness to keep it grounded—even if it seems, at times, about to spiral into the void, a victim of its own allegiance to embracing a collective short attention span.

It's a rollicking, adventurous production (produced in association with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre) and a welcome addition to modern farces—more Noises Off, which is excellent, than Lend Me a Tenor, which is excrement. And beware if you are sitting near the stage. Sure, you've got the best view. But audience participation is a huge part of the show, and several audience members are recruited into the mayhem. The more reticent you are, the more likely you'll be impressed into service. But don't worry: No one dies, and no one goes to jail. And you might be fortunate enough to become a most reluctant star of the show. . . .

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