“The Servant of Two Masters” is a pure comedy. By which I mean: Carlo Goldoni, the Italian playwright who wrote the commedia dell’arte-style play about 270 years ago, was not trying to make some political point, or say something profound about the human experience. He was looking to get laughs.
“The Servant of Two Masters” may be light as air, but it has survived, and it is currently making for a very entertaining evening as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s annual outdoor, summertime production at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. As we have come to expect from these outdoor shows, the handsome set (by Jonathan Wentz) transports us to another time, and a lot of thought went into the colorful costumes (by Paul Canada), with the clothes of the play’s three pairs of lovers echoing each other in some way.
Doug West directs, using the translation/adaptation by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte that debuted on the outdoor stage in 2010. (Another adaptation of the same play, titled “One Man, Two Guvnors,” has been a hit in London, New York and elsewhere in recent years.) Monte’s version doesn’t move the story to relatively modern times, as “One Man, Two Guvnors” did. But she does use modern vernacular, such as “catch my drift.”
James Michael Reilly has the lead role, as Truffaldino — the long-suffering servant who tries to beat the system by serving two masters at the same time while concealing his two-timing from both of them. His portrayal reminded me of Art Carney playing Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners” — the character seemed a little goofy and a little dense, but also more clever than anyone else in the play, at times. He’s “simple like a fox,” another characters says of him. A flawed but very likeable man; someone you instinctively root for.
Truffaldino has a love interest — another servant, Smeraldina (Aurea Tomeski) — but this romance is secondary to two other romances. Clarice (Miranda Rizzolo), the young daughter of the Venetian merchant Pantalone (Jay Leibowitz), is in love with Silvio (Russell Sperberg), the son of Dottore Lombardi (Raphael Nash Thompson). But this match is threatened by the arrival of Federigo, Pantalone’s business partner, who had previously been engaged to Clarice (against her will) but was presumed dead.
We quickly learn, though, that Federigo is not Federigo. Federigo really is dead, but his sister Beatrice (Izzie Steele) is impersonating him while she searches for her lost love, Florindo (Tug Rice). Florindo has arrived in Venice, too, but he and Beatrice are unaware of each other’s presence there. Meanwhile, the poor but enterprising Truffaldino manages to gain employment from both.
Goldoni’s cleverest touch may be that he creates a situation in which Truffaldino has to plot to keep Beatrice and Florindo from meeting each other (in which case, his jig would be up) as they are fervently searching for each other. Truffaldino isn’t heartless; he just has no idea who they truly are.
Two porter/waiters (played by Alexander Emond and Benjamin Lang) and a maid (Abby Carroll) add to the physical comedy. A scene in which Truffaldino oversees simultaneous dinners by his two masters at an inn while keeping them unaware of each other, and steals bites of food in order to satisfy his own ravenous hunger, may be the absolute highlight: It’s a sort of immaculately choreographed slapstick ballet.
Eventually everything is sorted out, of course, and everyone winds up happy. There is no real villain: Pantalone may try to keep his daughter from marrying the man she loves, but that’s not due to meanness. It’s just because he feels he has an obligation.
After Reilly, I thought the standout among the actors was Steele, as a particularly fiery Beatrice. But everyone was very good, and the production itself was just as solid; the Shakespeare Theatre takes even its lightest entertainment very seriously.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will present “The Servant of Two Masters” at the outdoor stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, through July 29. Visit shakespearenj.org.