I can remember precisely the last time I laughed as long and hard at the theater as I did the other night at Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” It was several years ago — when I first saw “One Man, Two Guvnors,” among the most rollickingly funny comedies I know.
That was on Broadway, where the show cemented the fame of English actor and comedian James Corden in the United States — he played a loopy guy named Francis who thought he’d double his earnings by holding two full-time jobs at once as the personal assistant of two different bosses (guvnors in British parlance). The show is fully scripted, but the role feels a lot like it calls for improvisation. Corden seemed wired for any situation — you couldn’t tell whether he was improvising or not.
Corden is beefy and bouncy, a teddy bear who appeared to own the role of Francis in this lightning-fast farce by British playwright Richard Bean. But he does not. The Francis we see onstage at Quintessence in Mount Airy is a slim, agile Sean Close, an actor who’s had traction on local stages and who gets better every time I see him perform. (Only weeks before “One Man, Two Guvnors” opened, he performed in a comic exploration of faith called “The God Project,” a smart show from 1812 Productions that he also co-wrote.)
Close is over-the-top in the role, as he should be, and personable as well. He plays a major screw-up with a built-in knack for getting himself out of constant trouble, which Close brings off not just comically, but also believable. In Trey Lyford’s bam-bam production — whizzing by even though it’s a very full two acts — Close is asked to do much more than work the slapstick and volley the gags that run through the show. His character is the play’s foundation, rock-solid here.
This would have delighted me enough, yet Lyford has assembled a bang-up cast — both figuratively and literally — that makes this crazy comedy take off quickly and stay aloft. I’m not walking into the show’s strange maze of deception and deranged logic to tell you the plot details, best understood as they unravel. I can say that the two guvnors — a wealthy snoot and a dangerous hoodlum — are excellently played, and with perfect timing, by Jered McLenigan and Hanna Gaffney.
Other characters include a mobster called Charlie the Duck (Paul Hebron), his airhead daughter (Shea-Mikal Green), and the would-be actor she adores (Jay Dunn). Some performers play dual roles — Brian McCann as a puffed-up chief waiter and Desmond Confoy as a hapless ancient restaurant food-runner are hoots — and the two other actors playing supporting characters (Steven Wright and Lee Minora) shine in their spotlights.
There’s spunky music galore before the show begins and between many of the scenes. It’s all joyously performed by the cast and Jay Purdy, who’s a one-man band. The score is by Grant Olding and written specifically for the play.
The romp unfolds on Peter Smith’s workable set, which accommodates several different locations in the plot, and with Jane Casanave’s comic-book costumes. “One Man, Two Guvnors” calls for many props, and props designer Shannon Kearns supplies them all.
The basic plot of “One Man, Two Guvnors” comes from the 18th-century play “The Servant of Two Masters,” by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. I’m going to find a translation and read it, to keep the fun going.
“One Man, Two Guvnors,” produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through June 30 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., Mount Airy. 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.