(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
One Man, Two Guvnors, playing through June 26 at Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theatre, is a show with a fascinating back-story.
Written by Richard Bean, the text is based on Servant of Two Masters, a 1746 play by the Italian writer Carlo Goldoni in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. In 2011, Bean modernized the story, placing the action in Brighton, England, in the 1960s, with the Italian pantomime stock characters replaced by British gangsters and their employees.
Zach’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors is top-notch, mining the nostalgic, “Swinging London” period setting while at the same time provoking uproarious laughter from a contemporary audience. Taking a page from immersive theater, the house opens well before the show begins, with a live band performing hits from the British Invasion while audience members can purchase beer and wine from a bar on the stage (which is, of course, festooned with disco balls and a giant Union Jack on the backdrop).
Director Abe Reybold’s production is madcap in all the best ways, with copious entrances, exits, zany staging, and physical comedy galore (much of it performed impressively by the show’s “Fight and Physical Comedy Director,” Toby Minor). The “wacky misunderstandings” of the plot lead to plenty of opportunities for confused identities, lascivious jokes, and deliberate scenery chewing, all done with a wink (sometimes literally) to the audience. One Man, Two Guvnors does not take itself seriously, and it never asks the audience to do so, either.
Such a metatextual comedy requires talented performers, and the cast here does not disappoint. As the beleaguered, Harlequin-esque servant Francis Henshall, Martin Burke dominates the show with paunch and presence. Although funny throughout, he shines most brightly during moments of aside, ad-libbing, and audience interaction, never failing to charm even when his character acts less than salubrious.
Amy Downing as Rachel Crabbe and Tyler Jones as Stanley Stubbers – Henshall’s eponymous “two guvnors” – provide fantastic comedic foils to Burke, and never fail to keep the pace breakneck. Amber Quick, as Dolly, Henshall’s love interest, forces him to meet his vivacious match, adding some much-needed female perspective to a play that might otherwise be dominated by overly masculine energies. André Martin, as wannabe-actor Alan Dangle, steals nearly every scene he’s in with delightfully precise overacting of the worst (and thus most hilarious) kind.
The rest of the large, talented cast is similarly pitch perfect, as are The Craze, the band that both opens the show and serves as chorus (with some of the actors) between scenes, performing original songs by Grant Olding.
One Man, Two Guvnors makes no great statements about the human condition, but it does so knowingly and with a sly chuckle, without trying to add a layer of depth that it simply doesn’t need. With comedy both high and low, it is a riotously funny good time with a dynamic energy that is pure delight.