I searched high and low for that proverbial kitchen sink to make an appearance in the Alley Theatre's uproarious production of Richard Bean's inspired farce One Man, Two Guvnors, which inaugurated the venerable theater's return to its downtown home after a year-long hiatus at the University of Houston and a multimillion-dollar facelift, but I guess there wasn't any more room onstage. How could there be? There's everything else, though, a worldwide grab bag of comedy, high and mostly low, that will do anything to get a laugh. It succeeds wildly.
Taking its cue from Carlo Goldoni's classic 1743 sparkler Servant of Two Masters, a combo of Molière and commedia dell'arte, Bean cleverly rejiggers the antique, still funny situation of doofus Francis, the Harlequin figure (the masterful Jeffrey Bean), who simultaneously serves two bosses, and flings it into swingin' '60s England. This tweak of an update performs wonders.
Bean lets his comic muse soar. He borrows everything he can think of – Three Stooges slapstick; silent film's pinpoint accuracy and ballet; Benny Hill's lecherous leer; a fifth grader's sweet smuttiness; vaudeville's raucous music hall; fourth-wall-breaking improv and ad lib; some of the hoariest jokes this side of Joe Miller; even Tim Conway's shuffling old geezer from The Carol Burnett Show – and weaves a virtual crazy quilt out of all these disparately silly elements. That this works as miraculously as it does is certain testament of a sort to Bean's (and Mr. Bean's) grasp of the eternally goofy. It's also testament to the valiant Alley troupe, who throw themselves into the loopy shenanigans with unalloyed enthusiasm and over-the-top giddiness. They've never looked happier.
The plot is inconsequential and serves no purpose other than to set this whirligig spinning. Everyone's an archetype, a caricature of types known since the pyramids. Quickly, here's the story, or as much of it as you'll ever need or want.
In Act I, Foolish Francis has one thing on his mind – food. In Act II, it will be sex.
Francis had been a member of a skiffle band – all the rage in Britain till the Beatles came in – and after being fired from that, had gone to work for a criminal. When his first boss, a vicious thug, is murdered, he hires himself out to an effete twit named Stanley (Todd Waite). What Francis doesn't know is that Stanley, in love with the thug's sister (Emily Trask), was the killer.
Meanwhile, crime boss Charlie “the Duck” Clench” (James Black) has pimped out his dim daughter Pauline (Melissa Pritchett) to said thug to pay off a gambling debt. She, though, has fallen for wannabe actor Alan, ham of hams (Jay Sullivan). So when the thug turns up very much alive, the characters scatter and head for seaside Brighton. That they all converge at the same pub has hapless Francis serving two masters, desperately trying to keep each one away from and unaware of the other. Classic complications, classic door-slamming farce, classic case for hilarity.
Added to the frenzy are marvelous other loony toons. Dolly (Elizabeth Bunch), Clench's pneumatic bookkeeper, a “bird” with a head, will be pursued by Francis in due time. She turns around on her leopard high heels and gives us a wry, naughty wink: “I know exactly what he’s after. And if he carries on like this, he’s going to get it.”
There's Harry Dangle (Paul Hope), Clench's shysterish and polysyllabic lawyer; Lloyd (David Rainey), owner of the Brighton pub, who always fondly remembers his time spent in Brixton Prison; and – this is a big and – the two waiters who serve dinner in the extended concluding scene of Act I, stuffy headwaiter Gareth (John Feltch) and inept assistant Alfie (Steven Epp), the oldest waiter in the western world.
More than any other, this scene puts One Man into the stratosphere, as ravenous Francis, stealing food from each course, must somehow keep the dishes coming to each of his bosses. Epp, a veteran of commedia dell'arte technique and co-director of Minneapolis's The Moving Company, with his Einstein wild wig and befogged air, is sheer joy, whether as innocent Buster Keaton or amped-up dirty old man. When you see two doors adjacent, you just know somebody's going to get smacked.
Epp's Alfie can't get within two feet of either before someone enters and, lo and behold, he gets it from two doors. Of course, previous to that, he's gotten smashed by platter and impaled by corkscrew, bronco-busted a bar trolley and wheezed himself doddering into an exit. It's a star turn, for sure, and Epp positively radiates, stealing the show from the other vets.
Ah, but Bean — the Jeffrey one, that is — will not go down willingly. This is still his show, and his immense rapport with the audience, his common-man-ness, goes a long way in our rooting for him, no matter that he is “not a Swiss watch,” as Stanley snidely puts him down. Bean has given Bean two great physical showstoppers all his own. There's Stanley's steamer trunk to move into the pub, and his attack on the impervious luggage leaves us breathless, until he picks two gentlemen from the audience to help him out and move it for him. In a quick bit, they are soon forgotten behind a slammed door.
And then, soon after, Francis starts arguing with himself over what he should do next. As he gets more heated and annoyed, both sides start fighting. He slaps himself, knocks himself down, pulls himself backward (!) by the feet and leaves us, again, gasping in laughter. Bean's physical dexterity is mighty impressive.
The show's English music-hall bona fides are amply demonstrated by the in-house, onstage skiffle band The Craze (a pun on the notorious London thug brothers the Cray twins), a quartet who play when we enter the theater, play during the show for scene changes, play during intermission and then usher us out into the night with the bouncy “Tomorrow's Alright With Me.” The four intrepid wannabe mopheads are Aaron Echegaray, Mike Whitebread, Chris Goodwin and Ryan Chavez. Composed by Grant Olding, the songs start out British boy-band folk with authentic washboard percussion and gradually morph into burgeoning Beatles territory.
It's a merry lilting romp, especially when the cast members join in. You haven't quite heard Olding's jaunty “The Brighton Line” until you hear it played by Waite on claxon! There's also an upbeat Andrews Sisters knockoff, a Jamaican steel drum routine and a Pearly King number with Hope but without the buttons. The music might comment on what's happening onstage, but it's really there to put us in a good mood. It accomplishes that handily.
Directed with whiplash precision by Gregory Boyd, with a strong assist from “physical comedy director” Christopher Bayes; wondrously costumed by David C. Woolard (Francis's loud orange plaid suit screams Harlequin, plus that skin-tight turquoise and leopard ensemble for Dolly screams “va va voom!”); and designed by Hugh Landwehr to look appropriately Brighton tatty and musty, Bean's frantic comedy is certifiable high octane. Although Act II doesn't zip with the same effect as its preceding act with that manic dinner scene, there's still plenty of laughing gas to give us a contact high throughout the remaining circus. There's enough gas to fill a zeppelin. Send in the clowns.
One Man, Two Guvnors continues through November 1 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $21-$68.
SIDENOTE: After the Alley's $47 million Botox treatment, the brutalist exterior remains a beast, but the interior is a beauty. Sure, the clunky Franzen architecture has been softened (a bit) by some strategically placed outdoor LED red lighting that bathes the concrete dramatically, but now the walls look as if they're bleeding. No matter what the Alley does, its outside remains Stalin meets Khrushchev.
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However, once you're inside, the mood lightens appreciably. The lobby still sweeps upward on ruby carpeting with that wooden arc of a banister, but now the eye sweeps upward with it, up and up, following a three-story continual curve until we hit the ceiling with its triangular motif of crossbars. We've never seen that before. The space is open and lit up for Christmas.
The expanded bar area (and don't we love that) opens through picture windows to what is usually called an “expanse of downtown.” The outdoor lobby area has been enlarged and overlooks Jones Plaza, which we're told is heading for its own redo, so there's a nice vibe to the space. Winter and spring should be especially delightful out there during intermission if some noisy rock group isn't performing across the street.
But great lobby space and more restrooms – oh, I should note that the urinals in the men's room discreetly face Louisiana Street, which is a pretty nifty design – do not a theater make, so it must be inside the auditorium where the magic lies. And it does. By removing those dreaded side pillars that hampered movement and design choices, the wizards have opened up the backstage, basement to ceiling. They've enclosed the thrust stage with more seating by bringing the stage floor forward to us. Some seats were lost, but the intimacy gained is far greater, as are the added benefits of an orchestra pit when needed; a fly loft, which is standard operating procedure for any professional theater; and elaborate state-of-the-art electronics and lighting grid.
What you cannot see has been completely altered, too, like all the backstage dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces. (The downstairs blackbox Neuhaus Theatre has not been touched, having been redone a few years back.) Modeled on NYC's Vivian Beaumont, the Alley's new interior also hearkens to the first among first, Shakespeare's Globe, with its thrust stage. But at least now, thankfully, we don't have to stand in the orchestra section like those Elizabethans. Dear Alley, the wait was worth it.