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‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ on BroadwayBY: Carol Rocamora 04.28.2012
Richard Bean, a standup comic, has reached into the oldest traditions of theater to deliver a hybrid farce of the highest order. Just don’t sit too close to the stage.
One Man, Two Guvnors. Adapted by Richard Bean from Goldoni; Nicholas Hytner directed. At Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th St., New York. www.onemantwoguvnors.com. HD National Theatre Live screening June 17, 2012 at Ambler Theater, 108 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, Pa. (215) 345-7855 or www.amblertheater.org.
Marvelous mayhem by the seasideCAROL ROCAMORA
Warning: Sit in the first three rows of the Music Box Theatre at your own risk these days. You might find yourself dragged up on stage, handed a brimming soup tureen, shoved under a table or sprayed with a fire hose. That’s only for starters.
Richard Bean’s riotous One Man, Two Guvnors is adapted from Goldoni’s 1743 farce The Servant of Two Masters, which in turn hails from the tradition of commedia dell’arte, the medieval dramatic form featuring troupes who toured Italian towns, appearing on street corners and squares. Their stock scenarios were performed by skilled actors playing a variety of familiar types, including dimwitted masters, wily servants, love-sick suitors, damsels in distress, miserly fathers, spirited daughters— you get the idea.
Bean, himself a standup comic, has adapted Goldoni’s classic with the skill and know-how of someone who’s made his career in vaudeville, maintaining and updating all the key ingredients of the seminal commedia form: music, dancing and lazzi (gags). He’s taken Goldoni’s stock characters and intricate plot, updated all the elements, removed them from Goldoni’s Venice to the British seaside resort town of Brighton and thrown in some British music hall elements to boot. The result is a hybrid farce of the highest order.
One Man, Two Guvnors (the latter word is British slang for “boss” or “employer”) features its own coterie of recognizable stock characters: the upper-class twit, the ardent actor, the buxom blonde, the fussy father, the dimwitted damsel/daughter, the girl-disguised-as-boy— all caught up in concurrent plot lines too intricate to untangle. Suffice it to say, love, money and hunger are the forces that drive them all, especially the eponymous “One Man,” a servant named Francis Henshall, played by James Corden (of The History Boys fame).
Corden’s Francis Henshall is in the great tradition of the wily servant, whose prototype goes back even farther than Goldoni’s play or Harlequin in commedia dell’arte— all the way back, in fact, to Pseudolus in Plautus’s eponymous Third Century B.C.E. comedy about the slave who was servant of two masters. (Think of Zero Mostel, who played the role of the clever slave in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum.)
Like Mostel, Corden is a sight-gag in and of himself: a roly-poly actor hurling his pudgy body through the play’s plot hoops while dressed in a clownlike, mismatched, three-piece check-and-plaid suit. At the same time, he conducts a running conversation with members of the audience, from whom he is constantly begging food. In one hilarious bit, he hawks a sandwich from an unwitting spectator, with riotous results that apparently change every night (I’ve seen the show twice so far).
Francis Henshall’s two masters, the upper-class twit and the girl-disguised-as-boy, are staying at the same pub hotel in Brighton, in pursuit of their respective loved ones. What transpires in that hotel constitutes the heart of the evening’s entertainment, a series of shameless slapstick gags with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in: mistaken identity, intrigue, doors slamming and cutlery flying. People get knocked over, turned upside down and fall down stairs. Audience members are lured up on stage and caught up in the action, food fights, you name it.
Act I ends with a scene where Frances and two other waiters serve an unforgettable gourmet lunch to his respective masters (from soup to trout to lamb to crêpes) that had the spectators around me in the audience either choking or convulsing. The scene goes up in flames of laughter, just like the dessert.
This marvelous mayhem, scene after scene, is punctuated with delightful musical interludes provided by a four-piece band called The Craze, which plays upbeat tunes composed by Grant Olding. Actors join the band in a series of quirky bell-playing, horn-honking, and chest-slapping numbers.
Farce is difficult. The timing must be precise and the tone pitch-perfect without sacrificing the delicate balance between comic bits and the grotesque, and between character types and caricature. Director Nicholas Hytner and his cast achieve that balance artfully. Watching One Man, Two Guvnors this week, I was reminded how rare the opportunities are for us to let go and enjoy ourselves in the theater.
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