One Man, Two Guvnors and The Libertine
Servitude takes many forms on the stage-as evidenced by two current area offerings. Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a recent Broadway hit with roots in commedia dell arte, centers on the struggles of fictional Harlequin-like Francis Henshall to satisfy two very different bosses. Bridge Repertory Theatre of Boston and Playhouse Creatures/NYC ‘s “The Libertine” examines the enslavement of witty 17th century poet John Wilmot, Lord of Rochester, to sexual addiction. While both plays have visible flaws, the performances-especially in the latter area premiere—do much to escape them.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” by Richard Bean is a kind of poor man’s version of the Goldoni classic “A Servant of Two Masters.” In both plays, much of the humor depends on the resourcefulness of a wily servant marshaling considerable skill to fulfill his masters’ requests. Where Goldoni’s comedy possesses inspired entanglements and sharp poetic banter, Bean’s Beatles era play suffers from repeated jokes— including tiresome ones about identical twins and sex at a men’s prison- and situations that lacks real development and never reaches the kind of sublime slapstick that distinguishes a great modern comedy like Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.”
Ultimately, Bean’s play rises or falls with Henshall, and here the news is very good. Out actor Neil A. Casey has the gifts of crack timing, facial expressiveness and physical comedy that are essential to pulling off Francis’ engaging deceptions in the pursuit of food and security. Under company artistic director Spiro Veloudos’ expert guidance, Casey makes Henshall’s evasions with his employers and frolicking in the presence of Dolly, the feminist woman he desires, a rollicking tour de force. Aimee Doherty has the right attitude as Dolly, especially in a clever sequence that sends up Margaret Thatcher’s cold tenure as Prime Minister without ever mentioning her by name. McCaela Donovan is appealing as ‘guvnor’ Rachel, disguised as her late brother Roscoe, and Dan Whelton is letter-perfect as her love interest and other ‘guvnor’ Stanley Stubbers. John Davin, long one of the Hub’s best character actors, makes his very good most of the physical comedy antics of an 86 year old named Alfie.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” turns out to be a conventional comedy that never masters its art form. The Lyric Stage New England premiere breaks free from the shackles of Bean’s overlong play when Casey lets loose his considerable talents. His well-deserved legion of fans should see it for the pleasure of his company and welcome return.
One Man, Two Guvnors, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through October 12. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com
John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, offended many of his Restoration era fellow Englishmen with his sexual addiction as well as his raunchy verse. Even so, his candor and risk-taking as both man and poet pre-figured the very different but equally graphic work of novelist Henry Miller and gay dramatist Jean Genet. Playwright Stephen Jeffreys does well depicting the wild and witty Rochester in his thoughtful if not fully focused play “The Libertine,” first staged by Playhouse Creatures/NYC in 2011 at Off-Broadway Theater Row. Bridge Repertory Theatre of Boston, collaborating with Playhouse Creatures/NYC, is now giving Jeffrey’s lively study a robust Hub premiere under the direction of the New York company’s Eric Tucker.
Under Tucker’s sharp direction, ensemble strength couples with rich design. Actors move ornate doors from scene to scene as Rochester and the people in his life move through the details of his short but never conventional life. Angela Huff’s rich period costumes and Michael Wartofsky’s smart compositions-ably sung by the talented cast—keep add much to ambience. Joseph W. Rodriguez captures the vitality and in-your-face offensiveness of Rochester. Olivia D’Ambrosio catches his love interest Elizabeth Barry’s charm and gutsiness as a liberated actress, but she could do more to evoke the singular performing strengths that impressed the poet.
Troy Barboza has good moments of vulnerability as young Billy Downs, a conflicted young friend whom the Earl later abandons at a moment of truth. Jeffrey’s play suggests a possible relationship between Downs and Rochester but never explores it. Also, Rochester initially speaks of possible involvement with gentlemen when he is not with the ladies, but here too, the mention is never developed.
“The Libertine” does so well capturing the language and life of the Restoration era and Rochester’s self-destructiveness that the lack of tight focus is all the more frustrating. Jeffrey’s needs to rein in his overly ambitious play, which takes on Rochester’s conflict with King Charles II, his disputes with his peers and his marital woes as well as his evolving relationship with Elizabeth. Fortunately, Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures/NYC trump the play’s shortcomings with a shimmering collaboration as rousing as Rochester’s most wittily ribald verse.
The Libertine, Bridge Rep Theatre of Boston and Playhouse Creatures/NYC, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through September 22 .617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com