You can dress up a Three Stooges comedy or a limp Saturday Night Live sketch with the best character actors in the business, you can triple the budget to DeMille proportions, you can gloss this silly comedy with a beguiling set design and stunning costumes, but what are you finally left with? Not Lubitsch or DeMille, only a mere Three Stooges comedy that looks great. There's no way to make this a Grade-A Paramount, when it's really B-Columbia.
The Alley Theatre's adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's classic farce The Servant of Two Masters (1743) by Artistic Director Rob Melrose pants into intermittent life, but usually the show lies in front of us begging to be laughed at. Sorry to say, the laughs are few, and the begging is self-indulgent.
Even farce as musty as Goldoni,'s once called “the Italian Moliere” by none other than Voltaire, needs wit and, believe it or not, a light touch to tickle us. Beating us upside the head does no one any favors. Goldoni reinvented the commedia dell'arte and was one of the most prolific and lucrative of 18th century playwrights. He reinvigorated comedy by making his protagonists bumpkins of the working class who always get the better of their masters. It was a most profitable transformation.
The Alley's Servant is a bit of everything: a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants. (Except for the seltzer, which if Melrose had thought of it would have been spritzed all over the stage.) Farce is silly, but not stupid. There are, of course, slamming doors, characters shouting in agony or ecstasy, a lot of groin jokes, silly walks, exaggerated gestures, eye popping, frantic action, and even a two-piece band stage right (Mark Danisovszky and Mike Whitebread), who don't do much of anything all evening.
The great set piece should be the first-act closer when servant Truffaldino (Christopher Salazar in hyper Nathan Lane mode) must serve dinner to his two masters at the same time. Although frenetic, as our hero races back and forth between the rooms as the inn's cooks hand him another course with each stage cross, the action doesn't really build, it just repeats...and repeats. It's not funny, or clever, or witty – it's just busy. Which is what this play is entirely about. There's nothing that produces a great outburst of laughter. The play's fussy and fusty at the same time.
We watch in desperation as the fine actors chew the scenery – a delicious concoction from Michael Locher that blends the Doge's palace with its Moorish arches and columns and filigree with a miniature Grand Canal with tiny gondolas at the front of the stage. That's about all these pros do. Chomp away, as if this is the epitome of comedy. Restraint be damned, go broad, go outrageous, go for the groin.
Four of the actors wear commedia dell'arte masks and costumes, while the others are in contemporary couture Italian design of no-socks, linen coats, leather loafers, and cocktail dresses. (Glorious work by costumer Alejo Vietti.) This mash-up only serves to blunt our involvement, especially when it's Truffaldino we never see. This isn't ancient Greece, you know. Show us Salazar's funny faces, his expressions. Hiding our hero behind a mask is terribly off-putting.
Everyone is over-the-top, but Zachery Fine as Florindo, while equally over-the-top, manages to wrestle a real character out of his “Stella” bellows and asides to the audience. Using the entire Alley resident acting company – Shawn Hamilton (terribly under-served as one of the cooks), Melissa Molano, Todd Waite, Dylan Godwin, Elizabeth Bunch (she of the silly walk), Chris Hutchison, Melissa Pritchett, David Rainey – Servant creates a live-action cartoon, but not very interesting characters. The show is flat and one-dimensional. A good farce is based on truth, not sit-com tropes and hoary jokes. I like my theater in 3-D
The Servant of Two Masters continues through July 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$69.