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Quite apart from the fact that I laughed my ass off at the Eisenhower Theater the other night, I owe the cast of A Servant to Two Masters a big thank-you. I’ve been trying to puzzle out a theatrical mystery for much of my theatergoing life: how audiences were ever persuaded to give up the circus-y joys of pure clowning for the tamer pleasures of scripts and drama—and now, having seen the Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Company goose to life one of the transitional works that did the trick, I think I finally get it.

Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, who wrote Servant, is generally considered the guy who tamed the clowns. For the better part of two centuries, they’d been cavorting, juggling, and turning somersaults pretty much however they liked in the commedia dell’arte, each with a set character—wily servant, pompous master, sweet young thing, and so forth—but otherwise unfettered. There were loose stories governing their actions, but plots were hardly commedia’s point. Audiences wanted to see clowns clowning, and the performers obliged by improvising up a storm.

Then, in the 1740s, Goldoni wrote everything down, imposing dramatic rules and replacing free-form anarchy with scripted comic business. You’d think the audience would have told him to get lost—imagine the reaction of WWF fans if the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were suddenly reduced to pitching horseshoes—but it didn’t.

As someone who had been exposed only to modern approximations of commedia clowning, but who can readily see from 18th-century scripts that what replaced it was nothing special, I was always mystified by this transformation. No more. The YV/RSC Servant shows pretty clearly what must have happened: Goldoni set his dramatic house in order, all right, but with full knowledge that as soon as he got everything tidied up, the clowns were going to lay waste to it, wreaking far more havoc than they could in a less structured environment.

As staged by Tim Supple, Servant begins as a perfectly conventional sitcom about an upcoming marriage. On an attractively classical setting—two grand archways flanking a painted drop of Venice—we meet the lucky couple, Silvio (Sendhil Ramamurthy) and Clarice (Niky Wardley), and their dads (Ian Bartholomew and Sam Dastor) as they’re planning the ceremony. Then there’s a knock at the door, and the titular servant, Truffaldino (Jason Watkins), enters and begins to dismantle every element of their plans. For plot purposes, he brings word that his master, Clarice’s ex, is downstairs; because everyone has been assuming that Clarice’s ex is deceased, this causes something of a stir. It’s actually the ex’s cross-dressing sister (Rachel Sanders), whose boyfriend (Steve Toussaint) will shortly become Truffaldino’s other master, but never mind all that. The plot’s incidental.

What matters is that virtually everything Truffaldino does, from the moment he enters, effectively shreds the evening’s dramatic fabric. He inhabits the same world as the other characters, but he’s of a different species—feral where they’re civilized, an out-and-out goof where they’re comic characters in a play. At first, he’s simply cruder than the rest, hiking up his pants to display his thigh when he wants to impress a haughty maid (Catherine Tate), resealing a letter he should never have opened (which he can’t read, anyway) with a gooey glob of masticated bread. But before long, he’s wreaking more substantive havoc, popping not just out of the evening’s time frame (there’s a Monica Lewinsky joke) but also out of the proscenium arch, to enlist patrons in the first few rows for a costume-airing wave-a-thon.

Called upon to serve a supremely sloppy seven-course meal, Truffaldino ends up licking a good deal of spaghetti off the stage floor and passing a bowl of the dessert known as spotted dick (“Could you just hold onto my dick, please?”) to a blithely unsuspecting patron. In short, he pretty much deconstructs everything about the show that might reasonably be called structural. And slowly but surely, as he shatters their assumptions, their plans, and even their grammar, the other characters have no choice but to march to the beat

of Truffaldino’s drum, until, finally, they’re all acting as crazed as he is.

Lee Hall’s adaptation substitutes new/old jokes for Goldoni’s old/old ones without violating the spirit of the originals. In most translations, Goldoni’s jests are neither complicated nor dependent on artful phrasing, perhaps written so they could be trumped by the commedia improvisations they were supporting. Hall’s witticisms are sharp enough to stand on their own, from phrasing that smacks of vaudeville (“I’m not standing for this in my own house,” “Please be seated, then”) to lines that drift into absurdist territory of a more rarefied sort, as when the two masters are trying to figure out if they’ve got separate servants or are sharing just one (“I’ve only seen one of them, too,” “I’ve never seen two of them, once”).

The performances are all fine, with Watkins a standout as Truffaldino—athletic, engaging, and thoroughly hilarious. There’s a bit of Bill Irwin to the endearing vulnerability he brings to the part, but in most respects he’s giddily original, whether knocking himself cold by smashing into a door frame or congratulating himself on “downsizing the service economy” by working for two employers at once. The supporting cast is also sharp, particularly Sanders’ heroine-in-drag, Tate’s proto-feminist maid, and Ramamurthy’s dashing but dim romantic lead.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ deceptively simple setting, with its majestic arches and ever-changing arch-fillers, is as utilitarian as it is graceful, and other technical credits are also handled capably. The YV/RSC performers, incidentally, appear to be working without microphones—a rarity these days on this side of the Atlantic—and having no trouble at all making themselves heard in the furthest reaches of the 1,200-seat Eisenhower. The place hasn’t felt so intimate in ages. CP