Carlo Goldoni’s 1745 comedy The Servant of Two Masters
marked a sea change in Italian theater. Tossing out masks and improvisation, Goldoni sought to infuse a new psychological realism into commedia dell’arte’s anarchic humor and convoluted plots. The usual farcical trappings remain in this production: misdirected letters, discombobulated lovers, a woman disguised as her brother. But the central innovation of the play, as with the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio DeSica 200 years later, is its rediscovery of the human face. Like neorealist film, the novel individuality of Goldoni’s performers brings with it a radical social message: The conventions that force these recognizable people into deformed, stock situations aren’t just aesthetic. While domestic servitude may be less universal today than in Goldoni’s time, the ass-kickings his masters gleefully administer to their servants still work as a picture of modern class relations.
The artistic and social ferment of The Servant of Two Masters is visible in brief flashes in the New Globe Theatre’s production, based on Stuart and Anne Vaughan’s adaptation. But from the opening moments, as Pantalone (Alok Tewari) arranges the marriage of his daughter Clarice (Alessandra Ziviani), this version has the tentative and funereal atmosphere of sketch comedy gone terribly awry. The Vaughans present the play as if it were the product of an unholy collaboration between Richard Wagner and Harold Pinter: ponderously, and with exquisite attention to pauses. No double take is enough if a triple take can be attempted; no joke passes without an extended elbow to our collective ribs. As the unlucky servant Truffaldino, Steve Campbell seems eternally preoccupied by his own preoccupation, like a stoned Matthew Broderick. But his lassitude is just the most extreme example of the ennui that infects the entire young cast. For their sake, you almost wish Goldoni had let his actors keep their masks.