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A British Farce: One Comedy, Two Laugh Tracks

This article is more than 6 years old.

BOSTON — Imagine going in for Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Or understudying Audra McDonald in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”

Neil A. Casey isn't quite in that predicament as the star of “One Man, Two Guvnors” as most of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston audience presumably haven't seen the side-splitting, multi-award-winning performance of James Corden as the servant of two masters, as he was known in the original Carlo Goldoni comedy.

Commedia dell’arte morphed into British music hall farce when Richard Bean updated “Servant” to England in the ‘60s and the cast that was assembled in London and later transferred to New York delivered the goods, comedically and musically — there’s a skiffle band — as if it were mother’s milk. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production is mother’s milk once removed – not at all organic, but the pasteurization process still reveals some tasty flavors.

Neil A. Casey as Francis Henshall with the dregs of several leftover beers in "One Man, Two Guvnors" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. (Mark S. Howard)
Neil A. Casey as Francis Henshall with the dregs of several leftover beers in "One Man, Two Guvnors" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. (Mark S. Howard)

OK, enough with the dairy products. It’s a long way of saying that Corden’s performance was hilarious and Casey’s amusing. You can see the Lyric ensemble working harder to get where they’re going comedically than the Brits. And the skiffle sound that became such a big part of the Mersey beat of groups like the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and, oh yeah, the Beatles, doesn’t come as naturally to the Boston singers and musicians as to the band in New York, though they’re obviously quite talented and Catherine Stornetta does an energetic job leading them.

This is not an attempt to praise with faint damns because I ended up enjoying the Lyric production quite a bit — for almost the opposite reasons than the original production.

Here’s the story. Francis Henshall is working for one fellow and sees if he can swing working for two. The first fellow not only turns out to be a femme, but she’s engaged to the second fellow who killed her not-quite-identical twin brother whom she’s now disguised as. Neither of the two masters know that Henshall is double-dipping, mixing up their envelopes, and otherwise making a mess of things. Hilarity ensues. Or it’s supposed to.

Casey’s comic talents are not particularly physical, at least the times I’ve seen him. He’s more Shakespearean fool than zanni, the commedia servant from which the word “zany” is derived. His best moments here are bantering with the audience as he goes in search of food, but he almost seems more like an observer to the proceedings onstage than the prime mover, at least until he tries serving dinner to both masters simultaneously.

The funny thing is that this works to the production’s advantage in the second act. Corden so dominated the first act of the British production that the second, which focuses on the other characters, was a letdown, even with the gifted ensemble.

McCaela Donovan holds a knife to the throat of Alejandro Simoes who does likewise to Dale Place. (Mark S. Howard)
McCaela Donovan holds a knife to the throat of Alejandro Simoes who does likewise to Dale Place. (Mark S. Howard)

That the Lyric ensemble, under Spiro Veloudos’s wry direction amid Matthew Whitton's spare set design, works harder doesn’t diminish how good they are. And why shouldn't such talented actors stretch into British farce? Aimee Doherty is having a career year when you add her portrayal of Henshall’s love interest here to the great work she did in “On the Town” and “North Shore Fish.” Here she’s delightfully straight-faced in delivering Bean’s soliloquy that predicts one day there’ll be a female prime minister — and how, true to her female nature she’ll put an end to war and poverty. Tiffany Chen and McCaela Donovan also show why they’re rising stars locally and Dan Whelton, Dale Place, Alejandro Simoes and John Davin also do smart work for the menfolk.

As does Larry Coen in a somewhat cerebral part for him. I’m surprised that Veloudos didn’t have the more physical Coen play Henshall and Casey take Coen's part, the barrister Harry Dangle. Perhaps Veloudos was looking for that more balanced ensemble approach and one that didn’t beg for comparisons with the London-New York show.

Can’t be helped, though, at least for those of us who saw the indelible Corden, who left just about everyone in hysterics. The Lyric leaves you with the realization that delible can bring a smile to your face as well.

Here's a taste of the two productions:

This program aired on September 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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