Addison — So far, 2016 has been the best run for WaterTower Theatre, maybe in the entire time Terry Martin was artistic director. Interesting that this was his last of 17 seasons—although that development wasn’t planned when the 2015-’16 season began. His season-closing production of One Man, Two Guvnors continues the trend. (He’s now a guest director, and will direct a show in the 2016-17 season, which he selected.)
The year so far has given us, in the main stage and studio series, fantastic productions of The Lord of the Flies and Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, and three best-of-the-year contenders: Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life and John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar.
Guvnors doesn’t rank as high, but it’s veddy funny, likely to leave you knackered from using all those laugh muscles.
Playwright Richard Bean took his inspiration from the 18th century commedia dell’arte play The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, working off a literal translation from the Italian by Francesca Manfrin. The production opened at the National Theatre of London in 2011 with James Corden as Francis, corresponding to the part of Truffaldino in Goldoni’s play (the stock role of clown Arlecchino). Corden also played the role on Broadway, earning him a Tony Award and launching the career of a new late night TV host.
Bean’s version moves the action to 1963 with a skiffle band playing before curtain and at points throughout the zany action, here called The Quid and modeled after British bands of the era like Dave Clark Five and the Beatles, with songs written by Grant Olding. At WaterTower, the foursome of Ian Ferguson, Alan Murphy, Sara Bollinger and Alan Pollard, in matching blue suits, captures the style and sound (music direction by Sonny Franks) and have the freedom to observe and laugh at the action.
They’re not the only ones. So does the audience, boisterously, and occasionally the cast. With the amount of improvisation skills needed for commedia, the actors occasionally break character laughing, one of the few times when that’s OK. At the performance reviewed, there was a second-act moment between Brian Gonzales (as Francis) and his real-life wife Ashley Puckett Gonzales (as trollop Dolly, the Columbina role) that approached Tim Conway/Harvey Korman territory.
There is a plot, but it’s not all that important to understand. Francis works for gangster Roscoe, who was secretly murdered and is masqueraded as by his sister Rachel (Alexandra Lawrence). She’s trying to get the money her brother was owed, and can’t pay Francis until she does. So he finds a job with another crook, Stanley (John-Michael Mars), pitting him between two bosses. You’ve seen this comedic trope enough times to know that as much as Francis tries to keep his guvnors apart, they end up at the same place.
Hijinks is the game in commedia: Mistaken identity, cross-dressing, wordplay, scatological humor (a law firm is called Dangle, Berry and Bush), music (not just from the Quids) and young romance with Pauline (Allison Bret) and Alan (Mitchell Stephens) possibly derailing—it's all here. Other characters include Harry (Bradley Campbell), Charlie “The Duck” (Sonny Franks) and Lloyd (Erik Jenkins); elderly waiter Alfie (one of the zanni parts) is the physical comedy role that requires pratfalls and door slams in the face, and Jeff Colangelo is on top of it.
In commedia, singular character motivation is key. For Francis, in the first act, that’s food. He’s broke, see. So the comedy is supposed to bubble from his willingness to do anything to put something in his mouth. Er, stomach.
This calls for some harmless audience participation and lots of improvising. Gonzales, who was in the ensemble of Guvnors on Broadway and understudied Corden (he went on a few times), and is taking a break from Broadway’s Aladdin for this gig, has always been comically gifted. He’s done the role in New York and had performed it in front of audiences for a week before I saw him, which means many unscripted situations had been thrown at him. Improvisers build on previously discovered jokes and replies, but he makes them feel fresh, the first time they’ve rolled off his tongue. Many probably are.
At my performance, he asked the audience if anyone had a sandwich. Of course they wouldn't, this being a proper theater and all. Except one guy did, in a to-go container from dinner. It was actually hummus, he later admitted. During much laughter from the audience and the Quids, Gonzales chuckled “I don’t know how to handle this.” Why does someone bring a sandwich to a play in which the main character’s primary motivation is eating?
“It’d be like bringing nails to a production of Jesus Christ Superstar,” Gonzales said in what may go down as the funniest line of the year.
He’s funny, all right, but the desperation needed to make it commedia gold doesn’t go far enough. That changes in act two when his motivation is a shag, and Ashley Puckett Gonzales matches him wit for wit.
Other standout performances come from Marrs and Lawrence, but there’s not a weak link in this bunch. Vivid costumes (by Sylvia Fuhrken) and set design complete with giant British flag (by Chris Pickart) contribute to the cartoonishness of it all.
WaterTower has typically closed its season with a musical comedy, and while One Man, Two Guvnors is not a musical, a riotous comedy with music fits the bill. A fine closing to what has been a stellar year in Addison.
» Read our interview with Brian Gonzales