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TBTS Theater Review: One Man, Two Guvnors

May 1, 2012

The role of the harlequin in Italy’s 18th century commedia dell’arte is a stock character driven by basic human desires: the desire to eat, the desire to woo and the desire to serve. Sounds simple enough — but the harlequin most notably drives the action in plays such as these, a pivot around which the rest of the storyline swings widely, the center of increasing madness. This character has taken many visages in culture over the years — think Bugs Bunny in any situation, for example — without a general public even likely realizing the deeper cultural roots of the archetype.

There’s no mistaking that the harlequin owns his role ably in One Man, Two Guvnors, itself a rewrite of the 1743 Italian play Servant of Two Masters, which recently opened in Broadway’s Music Box Theater after wild acclaim in London’s West End. Nearly the entire London cast has followed the show to the Great White Way — including James Corden (of the BBC’s smash television show Gavin and Stacey) ┬áin the lead role of Francis Henshall, a simpleton in 1963 England just trying to earn a buck and a warm meal by securing two jobs: one for the disguised twin sister of a dead gangster and one for said twin sister’s lover and the admitted murderer of the dead gangster in question. As Henshall struggles to keep both bosses (guvnors) happy, he finds himself in an escalating series of moments wherein he must juggle and balance tasks precariously to keep the two from finding out about one another.

If it all sounds complex, it’s really not — and that’s the beauty of playwright Richard Bean’s work, which creates moment after moment of simple, vaudevillian joy. It simply won’t do for a character to fall back into a chair; that character must fall back into a chair and have the chair go flying backward, dumping him out backwards onto the floor. It’s not enough for an aged butler to be a subtle caricature of the elderly, that butler must be in turn thrown unwittingly down flights of stairs, slammed in the face by opening doors and knocked cold by an errant cricket bat. One Man, Two Guvnors is testament to slapstick done both cleverly and correctly, and it makes one remember just how refreshing lowbrow comedy can be when elevated to a higher plane.

Corden, make no mistake, is the star here; his Henshall is a comic storm, staging physical fights with himself, rushing from boss to boss and enlisting suspiciously unwitting audience members to help him keep things straight on-stage. It’s a pleasure to watch him orchestrate the proceedings, playing the cast and audience like a virtuoso. Oliver Chris dials his Stanley Stubbers (guvnor #2) up to a perfectly twittish eleven, and the rest of the cockney cast is more than up to the task of broad, over-the-top comedy at hand. Between scenes, the Beatles-esque mod/pop/rockabilly combo The Craze takes the stage, intermittently joined by the musical talents of the cast. It all works seamlessly and perfectly. It’s very, very easy to turn slapstick comedy into a mess — but director Nicholas Hytner keeps thing both simultaneously breakneck, as it should be, and smooth, which comedy of this sort so rarely is. Without relying elaborate stage gimmickry, ex-pop stars or stunning technical trickery, One Man, Two Guvnors exists as a simple, wonderful throwback to the type of show which once entertained the British dancehalls of the early 1900’s. Without attempting to be anything more complex or cultured than it is, the show sticks to what works. And what works are the classic conventions of universal comedy, which it delivers in spades.

(One Man, Two Guvnors is currently playing at the Music Box Theater on Broadway.)

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