New Haven’s sixth annual Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas has opened with a sometimes amusing, sometimes tacky touring version of Lee Hall’s new adaptation of Goldoni’s 1749 comedy “A Servant to Two Masters,” a Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Co. co-production. Hall (“Billy Elliot”) claims that his adaptation is more faithful to Goldoni than other versions, but it’s far more evocative of low British comedy than of the playwright sometimes referred to as Italy’s Moliere.
The play has to be driven by its Truffaldino, who serves two masters at the same time (Hall calls it the “downsizing of the service economy” and “a miracle of time management” here) and creates havoc among all the other characters. Jason Watkins has that demanding job in this Tim Supple staging. A slight, balding bundle of “sheer effrontery” whose real love is food, this Truffaldino works his tail off as he uses every trick in the comic book, including audience participation and insults, much physical humor and messy eating. It’s impossible not to admire Watkins’ boundless energy, but he tries too hard and the law of diminishing returns soon applies.
Watkins lacks the comic ease that results in unrestricted audience laughter. He does have hilarious moments, but they don’t infuse the entire production, which is too long and sometimes plods. Hall’s adaptation sums up Watkins’ almost-there performance aptly when he gives his character the borrowed line “I coulda been a contender.”
The rest of the cast involved in the play’s mistaken identities and gender bending is middling-to-good without living up to what is expected of the Young Vic/RSC. Rachel Sanders as Beatrice-dressed-as-a-man and Dan Milne as Silvio must be complimented, along with fight director Malcolm Ranson, for the scary derring-do they bring to their duel with swords. And Ian Bartholomew and Sam Dastor as the play’s two fathers, Pantaloon and Dr. Lombardi, are to be thanked for their skill.
Violinist Savatore Accardo plays the recorded scene-change music of Paganini, including his famous theme upon which other composers have based variations.
There was a minor problem with a rolling piece of Robert Innes Hopkins’ painted wooden Venetian set on opening night, and it does look a bit travel-worn. Nevertheless, it makes clever use of holes in its ceiling through which furniture and props are lowered and raised. But the main disappointment with this adaptation and staging, which is never as funny as it thinks it is, is that despite Hall’s illuminating program notes it fails to find any of the more thoughtful moments in the play. The production settles for slapstick, burping, pratfalls and cheap laughs.