Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Double comic trouble at the Lyric

Tiffany Chen, Aimee Doherty, and McCaela Donovan.  Photos: Mark S. Howard

There's an inherent tension in commedia dell'arte between performer and author - and often in history, the performer has had the upper hand. As the form is based on characters utterly familiar in their foibles (they're all but modular comic blocks), performers were (and are) constantly tempted to riff on received commedia ideas rather than work through the themes and designs of whatever pesky scribe has linked their exploits into a "play."

Still, occasionally real plays have been built from the raw material of commedia - Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters is perhaps the shining example, even if its script seems oft to be more honored in the breach than the observance (as in last season's gorgeous but ultimately tedious version from the Yale Rep). Goldoni went where commedia never had before - toward rather coolly trenchant comments on love and class - but to keep his many zanni happy, he had to construct a Rube-Goldberg-style plot (far too complicated to go into here) that could give everyone from Truffaldino to Pantalone a moment in the spotlight (indeed, in Goldoni's first version, he left empty pages for the actors to fill in with schtick).

Still, Servant does put over some telling ideas - and something in the millennium must mysteriously correspond to them, for now we have One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's British update of Servant, which plants Truffaldino (here "Francis") down in the early days of "Swinging" London, but on its fringe - indeed, Francis finds his two masters are mixed up with gangsters loosely modeled on the notorious Brothers Kray!

Well, that part doesn't really map to Goldoni, but the rough edge of Guvnors isn't as large a flaw as the simple thinness of Bean's script, which has little of its source's thematic ambition - and hardly its level of comic invention. Clearly the play's box-office success at Britain's National Theatre hinged on its stars - who, I've heard, were not only highly skilled but also prone to extended scenery-chewing (just as their forbears were).

But in the current, blowsily amusing Lyric Stage version, director Spiro Veloudos reliably cracks the whip when it comes to pacing (as he always does), and the meandering excesses of the Yale Rep Servant are pretty much banished. Not that the tone feels mechanical - indeed, Veloudos captures just about the right atmosphere of low, nutty fun (below). But alas, he doesn't have on tap quite the comic firepower of the stars of the Yale version.  Instead he has a lot of amusing, likable local comedians - and they're reliably diverting throughout. But I'm afraid I have to report that the production only occasionally breaks out from the chuckle to the belly laugh.

Teaching Goldoni how to swing in early 60's London.

It doesn't help that lead Neil A. Casey isn't convincingly hungry (or horny) as Truffaldino (who must be both) - although Casey, of whom I'm a big fan, brings his usual happy, cracked energy to the role, and is never less than a hoot. Likewise local star Aimee Doherty - despite her big, fake bazooms - seemed a little too classy to channel the lusty common sense of Smeraldina, and the talented McCaela Donovan just seemed lost as Beatrice - so her love interest, the sexy Dan Whelton, came off as eager but a bit blank.

Still, there are moments when the show does come together hilariously (although I won't spoil them by giving away any details). John Davin made the most of his many, many pratfalls, and I often giggled at the antics of the reliable Larry Coen, Alejandro Simoes, Tiffany Chen and Davron S. Monroe.  But oddly, I may have been most taken by this show's music. No, it's hardly Sondheim, but One Man, Two Guvnors boasts several surprisingly solid little numbers by Grant Olding. Based on the brief musical trend known as skiffle, they amount to one of the best theatrical scores I've heard in years - which the Lyric's crack onstage band (led by Catherine Stornetta) gave a light, buoyant snap. And the vocals by Tiffany Chen, Aimee Doherty, McCaela Donovan (all three at top) along with Harry McEnerny V, Chuong Pham, and Davron S. Monroe, were reliably beguiling.  More from Mr. Olding, please.

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