What happens when a man who admits to being something of a dimwit realizes he had better start living by his wits, for if he fails to do so he will not only be unable to scrounge up his next meal or get a girl, but risk more serious consequences?
This is the essential dilemma that drives “One Man, Two Guvnors,” English playwright Richard Bean’s farce of irrational exuberance. A hit in London, on Broadway and beyond, the play is now receiving its rollicking Midwest premiere at Court Theatre, where director Charles Newell has gathered a troupe of A-list Chicago actors with synapses that seem wired in ways unlike they are in most ordinary mortals.
Watching these performers as they make their way through an almost unstoppable series of comic challenges and extreme pratfalls — and as they simultaneously sing, dance, act, play musical instruments and juggle — you can only hope there is an oxygen machine in the wings, along with a very large first aid kit and a team of masseuses. Without question the first in line to receive resuscitation should be Timothy Edward Kane, the remarkable actor who gave such a galvanic solo performance in Court’s production of “An Iliad” a number of seasons ago, and is now back full-blast in radically different, fully comic form — juggling plates, accents and diversionary tactics as easily as he improvises quips.
But if Kane is the leading man in this manic ballet for human puppets, be assured there’s a slew of other dazzling performances here, too.
‘ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS’
When: Through June 12
Where: Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $45 – $65
Info: (773) 753-4472
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Bean’s play takes its inspiration from Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy “Servant of Two Masters,” which in turn drew on the commedia dell’arte tradition of an earlier century in which street performers playing stock characters improvised comic sketches. Here, to give the whole thing a modern flair, Bean has set his story on Brighton Pier (England’s seacoast playground), at the very moment when the Beatles were emerging and Great Britain was becoming the epicenter of “The Swinging Sixties.”
The plot is, to say the least, convoluted, with Francis Henshell (Kane), a failed skiffle player dressed in a country bumpkin-like madras plaid suit, at its wildly spinning epicenter.
Francis is hired to work as an assistant to the nasty little thug Roscoe Crabbe, who supposedly was murdered — done in by Stanley Stubbers (Erik Hellman), an upper-class twit who just happens to be the boyfriend of Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel. As it happens, Roscoe really is dead, but Rachel (Elizabeth Ledo), has arrived disguised as her “not dead” twin in order to collect a debt from local gangster Charlie “the Duck” Clench (Francis Guinan), so that she and Stanley can flee to Australia (“land of barbecue and opera”). Ledo is sensational as the twins, most notably in her dance as a half-male, half-female, and in her brilliantly delivered explanation of the difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins.
Meanwhile, Francis, who turns out to be quite as shrewd as he is fleet, also is hired by Stubbers. And his challenge is to serve both “guvnors” without letting them know he is dually employed. In the process he manages to eat unusually well, finagle the cash that will enable him to take Dolly (Hollis Resnik) — Clench’s proto-feminist but man-hungry bookkeeper — on a romantic getaway to Majorca, and exhaust himself to the point of insanity, most notably while overseeing the dinner requests of both masters in a scene that escalates from soup to the truly nuts.
As for a subplot, there is Clench’s daughter, Pauline (Chaon Cross), a fetching but vacuum-brained mod girl who was engaged to Roscoe but is in love with Alan Dangle (Alex Goodrich), a self-dramatizing actor taken with Pauline’s blank slate of being. Adding spice throughout are Ross Lehman as both a high-minded lawyer to the mob and an ancient waiter (whose wrestling match with a bottle of wine and corkscrew is priceless); musician Elisa Carlson as a sassy bathing suit-clad percussionist; Allen Gilmore as a Jamaican dandy with distinct musical tastes, and Derek Hasenstab, who doubles as actor and musician. The actors engage in several sequences of improvisation (expertly handled), and at two moments also deftly recruit members of the audience. They also launch into rock-meets-English-music-hall-like songs by Grant Olding, under the music direction of Doug Peck. As for set designer Collette Pollard’s enchanting circus-like rendering of Brighton Pier, and Mara Blumenfeld’s riotously funny costumes (think Carnaby Street for the big top), they are the most delicious eye candy imaginable.
I will confess here that this sort of comedy is far from my favorite cup of tea, and “One Man” runs on for longer than necessary. But this production is so sublime in its execution that I became a temporary convert. And cotton candy can be just as good as fish-and-chips from time to time.