By James Foritano
Boston, MA – “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Lyric Stage resuscitates a tradition that goes back to Roman comedy and possible Greek antecedents, now lost. But the more immediate progenitor is Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters.”
Goldoni took a tradition of broad farce in 18th century Italy and up-dated it to a more sophisticated genre for urban audiences. He kept to the satiric types, instantly recognizable, that wowed the rustics but removed their masks to reveal the actor’s faces, and thus gave more scope to individual acting talent.
Types such as the grasping, controlling father, the impetuous, love-lorne daughter/son; the imperious master and oppressed servant; the materialistic cleric and the cowardly braggart paraded in a universal and eternal dance of fools.
A happy ending was de rigueur, but the viewer could believe it or not. Anyway, it was evident that happy endings were only a brief interruption in the parade of folly. One had only to look around the neighborhood in which the traveling players of this so-called ‘Commedia del Arte’ had set up their stage to see these characters, your neighbors — even (horrors!) yourself — re-enacting ad infinitum the ineradicable follies of humanity.
Carlo Goldoni transformed what had been as ephemeral as pungent gossip into a recipe for the ages by writing down his inspiration in the broad strokes of a jazz composer. You supply the notes to Goldoni’s eternal chords and… Voila! Silliness survives in its modern guises to prance upon the modern stage.
Easy? Not quite. What to one chef is a ‘pinch’ too little, to another is too much. The directive to ‘simmer briefly’ leaves open to interpretation a range of temperatures and times. Inspired silliness is a product that, counter-intuitively, happens only as a result of the utmost care, of meticulous method. And, even then, the result can be precarious.
Alejandro Simoes as the love-struck youth Alan struck, for me, just the right note of immature self-love striving to become worthy of his beloved. His best profile was always turned self-consciously towards the audience, chin up-tilted just so to project an air of elegance that often overtook him so completely that he forgot his larger mission.
If Simoes’ Alan struggles under the burden of immaturity, Neil A. Casey, struggles under the class burden imposed by not one, but two masters.
A whirling top of stratagems to keep alive not only his dreams but his daily bread, he is the emblem of our present economic bind, where the underclass, us, juggles with minimum wages, while the Masters of the Universe enjoy an inordinate cut of the pie at every meal.
To be honest, though, I identified with the struggles of Simoes’ Alan, though his character was minor, more than I did with the struggles of Casey’s ‘Francism’ a pivot of this drama.
And that’s a problem — perhaps a problem with this production, perhaps just my problem.
I’m going to attempt to pin the problem on this dramatic revival rather than any deficit of comic appreciation on my part. Perhaps I’m being fair and objective; perhaps I’m doing what any character hot off Goldoni’s stage would naturally do, i.e. justify his prejudices.
In order to laugh from the belly, I have to see not only my faults writ large in a character, but also catch a glimpse of, if not virtues, then, the vulnerabilities which explain, if not pardon, those faults.
For me, Simoes’ Alan was every benighted youth living up to an impossibly high cultural image. He was ‘putting one over’ as often on himself as on society with his underage swagger.
His ‘tougher than thou’ stance was punctured so many times as he wielded a knife in one particularly funny scene, that he pathetically drops his stance altogether and begs for some smidgeon of belief from those enemies his is trying so desperately to scare. Then, he is the little boy wearing his father’s boots, and our laughter reaches the deep roots of forgiveness.
For me, Casey’s Francis was too much on top of his failures of character and fortune to elicit my sympathetic as well as antipathetic laughter. His whirling dervish readiness seemed quite adequate to his misfortunes.
Francis struggled, in my perception, only for moments before intuiting and acting out a solution every bit as adept and ruthless as the ‘stacked decks’ with which he was continually faced. His virtuosity left me breathless, but, more admiring than touched — and more than a little disbelieving.
Maybe I’m a glutton for suffering — other’s suffering — but I needed to see a pinch more real blood in a cut-throat world in order to empathize with and even recognize its more or less admirable citizens.
My final complaint in this litany was the distance I felt between the risible English types on view and my own, admittedly parochial view of what and who is ripe for ridicule.
In Goldoni’s day, according to historians of drama, canny actors portrayed universal folly through very local examples — noticing, as they moved around this or that town announcing their presence, setting up their stage, the cut of clothing that the locals favored — even mimicking with libelous precision the dress and walk of certain egregious power brokers.
Often, too, these traveling actors would stretch their linguistic talents to speak in the regional dialect as well, so you’d not only see the pompous local magistrate, the grasping politician but also hear them speak.
The English accents and types on view at the Lyric Stage didn’t quite do it for me, especially as there are so many types in our own smaller and larger power centers that could do, in my opinion, with the satiric drubbing of seeing themselves drawn and skewered to the proverbial ‘T’.
But, then, comedy being such a mystery, while I was only intermittently carried away with laughter, fellow theatergoers often drowned out my silences with their roars.
To each, his — or her — own.
(“One Man, Two Guvnors” continues through October 12 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston. For tickets, call (617) 585-5678.)