Friday, September 25, 2015

Phoenix Theatre's uproarious new show may be a trivial play for trivial people, but who among us is bold enough to claim a personal exemption?

The title character of Richard Bean's "One Man, Two Guvnors," Francis Henshall is one of life's "overwhelming underdogs," to borrow a phrase from the late Yogi Berra.

Francis Henshall points to someone of absorbing interest.
A washed-up washboard player in a skiffle band who accidentally becomes a bantam-rooster bodyguard, Henshall ends up in the employ of two men (one of them only apparently so), both of whom have secrets they strive to hold close.

He is forced to keep his divided loyalties firmly divided.  But his craftiness is applied more with  desperate energy than cunning. To this assignment Nathan Robbins brings exuberant vitality, as seen in Phoenix Theatre's opening-night performance Thursday.

Robbins displayed the physical skills — part mime, part acrobat — of the great silent-film comedians. The scene in which Henshall's argument with himself becomes a knock-down, drag-out fight was an astonishing tour de force. In addition, this Harlequin clone is always talking, which Robbins also does with full-bore charm and resourcefulness in a consistent Cockney accent.

Derived from Carlo Goldoni's 1740 comedy "The Servant of Two Masters," "One Man, Two Guvnors" is set loosely in 1967 London and Brighton, the venerable seaside resort. One of the slightly slapdash songs the cast performs as an interlude is "The London-to-Brighton Line."

That brought to mind a scene from "The Importance of Being Earnest," the Oscar Wilde masterpiece also caught up in identity issues, when Jack Worthing has to admit to the scrutinizing Lady Bracknell that he is a foundling who was left in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria Station.

"The Brighton line," he adds helpfully.

"The line is immaterial," intones the aristocratic matron.

In "One Man, Two Guvnors," the line is most certainly material, as Brighton raises to the forefront Henshall's dream of flying off to Las Vegas with the lascivious bookkeeper Dolly, as well as providing the opportunity for his two deluded employers to attempt suicide in the roiling brine.

To indicate how this all comes out happily would entail untying the plot's Gordian knot, a task beyond my competence. A farce of this magnitude touches on a number of serious matters — murder, money, kinship, self-esteem, starvation, love and marriage, vanity, chicanery, fortune — only to use them as chips in a hilarious game. Everybody enjoys the good luck of cashing them in at the end.

Once it's set spinning by Henshall's manic hunger and ambition, "One Man, Two Guvnors" exerts a centripetal force: All sorts of cultural items come whirring into play, starting with the stock characters of commedia dell' arte. It was hard not to see in the stumbling, debilitated waiter played by the virtuoso Rob Johansen the decrepit servant Anthony Hopkins portrayed in "The Remains of the Day." Then, of course, I couldn't help thinking of Phoenix's last production, "Silence! The Musical," an unpalatable adaptation of another movie Hopkins starred in.

Director Rich Rand has given his cast ample room to be extravagantly silly. This became tedious only in the second act during Henshall's effortful wooing of Dolly, played with richly mixed messages of tartiness and feminism by Jolene Mentink Moffatt. More than the production, I'm inclined to fault the playwright, who runs into the main danger of the farce genre: The more extreme the shenanigans, the harder it is for the audience, even while laughing, to care about any of the characters.

Still, the quality of the performances meant that every caricature came fully to life: Chynna Fry as Pauline Clench, the dense ingenue, struggles toward happiness with the beau of her choice, Alan
Alan waxes romantic, enchanting Pauline.
Dangle, an aspiring actor invested with fragile self-regard by Tyler Ostrander. Chelsea Anderson as Rachel Crabbe and Michael Hosp as Stanley Stubbers, the deceptive employers, kept up their wacky pretenses effectively. Hosp had something of the gangling oafishness of  John Cleese in his prime.

Bill Simmons and Ben Rose added vigorous diversity with their respective sketches (I infer) of an American gangster doing business in London and a modern type of commedia zany, a Jamaican cook. John Goodson played another such serviceable fool, and musician Neil Cain, off to one side with lusty guitar and voice, completed the commedia atmosphere of high-spirited spontaneity.

Oscar Wilde described his play as "a trivial play for serious people," hinting at the probing wit behind the surface fun. In contrast, Richard Bean doesn't require that the audience think much about anything; the triviality of the mirth he creates is directed at all the triviality we can bring to it.

The production brings plenty of first-class madness to the Russell Stage, with its cozy sets by Dan Tracy and suitable light and sound design by Laura Glover and Ben Dobler, respectively.

Henshall makes a meal of a missive.
There is some running through the aisles and much direct address to the audience, so you'll feel at one with the action, like it or not. Henshall/Robbins enlisted the onstage participation of three audience members, but they were obviously plants. One of them even got watered.

There is no dry humor in "One Man, Two Guvnors." There's in fact nothing drier than the letter the famished Henshall chomps on instead of delivering.

 "Not enough ink," he complains with his mouth full.

The playwright obviously used several bottles of the stuff to make this farce. It's so over-the-top you feel helpless trying to determine the difference between surfeit and excess. But it can't hurt getting stuffed with nonsense now and then. Phoenix's "One Man, Two Guvnors" ought to do that for you.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]