Chewing the Fourth Wall

Loosen your belts. While Berkeley Rep's One Man, Two Guvnors won't bust your sides, the West Coast premiere of this play based on an 18th-century classic will keep you laughing on three levels for 2.65 hours. When was the last time the numbers added up like that?

Directed with marvelous madness by David Ivers, playwright Richard Bean's adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters is a co-production with Orange County's South Coast Repertory. Operating at full throttle from high- to low-brow comedy, a superior cast crushes it — like a baseball player's grand slam. The only laugh that gets worn is a repeated reference to Australia's opera. (Surely a country that puts croc wrestling opposite opera on the national teeter-totter deserves a “balanced out at zero” rating?) But it's a minor quibble, and the collective genius — which made the production a hit on Broadway, and set a high bar for Ivers' California version — is undeniable.

First off the bench is the bump Goldoni's story gets from being plunked into the English seaside town of Brighton in 1963. Pumped-up costume design from Meg Neville (go-go boots, mini skirts, a painfully plaid suit, and more) is the perfect pairing for endless pratfalls, Monty Python-style slapstick, and a Fab Four/Beatles knockoff quartet named the Craze, led by music director Gregg Coffin.

The plot is a snarl that untangles into the story of one man, Francis Henshall (Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Dan Donahue, in this year's best ballet of buffoonery to date) and his hunger. Becoming the “handler” of two bosses (one Roscoe Crabbe, played with slick panache by Helen Sadler, and one Stanley Stubbers, conquered handily by the perfectly-pitched William Connell), Henshall adds to his cruising for cuisine the wooing of a bookkeeper named Dolly (Claire Warden).

Of course, a fierce farce has twists and turns, so it's actually Roscoe's fraternal twin sister, Rachel, who's disguised herself as Roscoe while planning an escape with her lover and brother's killer, Stanley. And there's a ditzy blonde named Pauline (Sarah Moser), who was formerly betrothed to Roscoe but is now intent on marrying Alan (Brad Culver, adeptly skewering every over-actor who ever [dis]graced the stage). Tossed into the mix are an indignantly ignorant father, a father-in-law speaking in legal gobbledygook, and two waiters who make quite a pair. Ron Campbell's aging Alfie turns a trip — and we mean trip — down a stairway into a show-stealer, and Danny Scheie lives up to everything good that's ever been written about his comedic talent, to play Gareth. Let's just say the sum of the parts is so good you forget just how good it is, and just give in to the frivolity.

When Donahue pops over the front lip of the stage, a neophyte will delight in the encounter. A “middling” theatergoer will chuckle as Donahue plops into an empty seat or a spot on the theater's floor amid the audience, declaring, “I'll just watch the rest from here.” And people who've spent enough time in theaters to be wary of actors breaking the fourth wall will admire the sophistication of giving an old trick a fresh twist as Donahue, joining the jaded folks, considers an empty stage for a few seconds that feel like a lifetime and opines, “Kind of boring, isn't it?”

The moment is a prime example of the multilevel appeal of Guvnors. Laugh at hot plates tossed like frisbees between actors, but don't fail to note the impeccable timing of the kicker (“They're hot”), or Donahue's hilarious licking to soothe his own blistering skin. Moments of audience participation are too much fun to spoil by describing here, and besides, the banana-and-hummus sandwich of one performance are sure to be something different, but equally hilarious, every night.

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