at the theatre: one man, two guvnors

That felicitous sound presently pervading the air on 45th street is an all-too rare commodity on Broadway: laughter.  But let’s not be coy about it – it’s the sound of an audience chortling, chuckling, cackling, crowing and collectively fearing for the state of their underpants as they convulse with bowel-shaking, tear-inducing, thigh-slapping, laughter of the most frivolous and fun kind. Praise be Carlo Goldoni, the 18th century author behind that commedia-inspired classic The Servant of Two Masters; it serves as rich fodder for One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s Anglicized adaptation of the stock-in-trade Harlequin story. The National Theatre of Great Britain production under the direction of Nicholas Hytner is cleverly set in end-of-the-pier Brighton, and references all the great English low-comedy traditions, like musical hall, variety, farce, and the  boobs and babes shtick of Benny Hill. At the center of the hilarity is Francis Henshall, the “one man” of the title who’s both the accidental architect of the story’s complications as well as its cynosure. James Corden repeats his praised London performance as the easily-confused Henshall, who agrees to work for a local small time gangster as well as a criminal in hiding, both of whom are linked in a web of  schemes and romantic entanglements – none of which he can keep straight. Doing everything in his power to keep his two guvnors from meeting – while trying to eat everything in sight – Corden performs comedic feats of physical derring do that recall the total corporal investment and precision timing of Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor in their prime. It’s not a spoiler (I hope) to tell you that at one point Corden picks a fight – with himself, no less – which somehow manages to take over the entire width of the stage to gut-busting effect. Such is the gratifying pleasure (just one of many) of horseplay, which seeks to do little more than amuse. Though the title might suggest something to the contrary, One Man is far from a one-man show. The cast of supporting characters are all worthy of mention, each a small masterpiece of finely-tuned comic archetype: the saucy secretary poured into a too-tight twin-set (Suzie Toase); an all-too-serious wannabe actor with a curious musical talent (the fantastic Daniel Rigby); a woman disguised as her dead brother (Jemima Rooper); the posh public school prat with a gift for inventive declaratives (the brillianticious Oliver Chris); the sidekick with the recurring catchphrase (Trevor Laird); a physically impaired waiter called upon to balance one plate too many (a terrifically nimble Tom Edden). Why, there is even a buoyant onstage band, The Craze, a skiffle-flavored rock ‘n’ roll quartet, if you will, which swings into song every time the curtain comes down. To anyone who lives in fear of audience participation, however, buyer beware: you might want to consider the first few rows of the theater a no-go zone. To everyone else, I suggest you “hold your hand out, you naughty boy,” as the old music hall song instructs, and prepare to clap and laugh like it’s going out of style.

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