Thursday, May 31, 2012

REVIEW: One Man, Two Guvnors

Review of the Saturday, May 26 evening performance at the Music Box Theatre in New York City.  A National Theatre of Great Britain Production.  Starring James Corden, Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper, Tom Edden, Claire Lams and Suzanne Toase, with The Craze: Jacob Colin Cohen, Austin Moorhead, Jason Rabinowitz and Charlie Rosen. A play by Richard Bean, based upon The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini.  Music and songs by Grant Olding.  Physical comedy direction by Cal McCrystal.  Direction by Nicholas Hytner.  2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Grade: A

For once, the ads aren't stretching the truth.  One Man, Two Guvnors IS the funniest play on Broadway.  And its star, James Corden is delivering the kind of performance people will be talking about for years to come.  That said, this particular kind of play may or may not be to your liking, depending on how you feel about the mix of styles and the decided confusion of the plot.  As long as you buy into the craziness from the moment the skiffle band takes the stage, you'll have a great time.  The fabled "laugh until your sides hurt" applies here; the next morning, my torso felt like I had done 500 sit-ups!  Personally, I love this kind of diversion, and as the last new show from the 2011-2012 season I'll be seeing, it is a great way to end the year and to begin the summer.

The play, written by Richard Bean, is based on the classic commedia dell'arte work, The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini.  The plot is a complicated one, with mistaken identities, mismatched lovers torn apart and reunited, and of course, a servant, who, in order to satisfy his insatiable hunger, takes two jobs, serving masters who oppose each other.  Comedy ensues when he confuses their orders and tries to keep the two from knowing each other are in close proximity.  Further explanation would rob you of some of the many surprise delights of this production, so I will go no further considering the plot.  However, I will say this: the plot is supposed to be confusing, and you really don't need to worry about it.  The cast reviews the story line several times and for long stretches, the plot isn't even part of what you are watching. My biggest (and only) criticism is that the very first time the plot is laid out for you, it is almost unintelligible.  Who knew English, spoken by actual Englishmen, could sound like a foreign tongue?  Granted, as the show goes on, you realize that the muddled speech of a couple of characters is intentional.  But for the American ear, uninitiated in the style of the play from the outset, this confusion is a bit off-putting.  If you go, and you really should, don't worry about this.  Just let the play happen.

Trevor Laird, Oliver Chris and Jemima Rooper

Director Nicholas Hytner keeps this giant piece of fluff going at a fever pitch, and it is the rare time I can think of that the intermission provides a welcome breather.  So much is going on here, that I have to commend Hytner for a few things.  First, as I said, the pacing is madcap, lightning fast, and never flagging.  The ever so slight pauses in the action allow you to catch your breath (often literally), regroup and prepare for the next thrill of laughter coming up.  He has created a laughter version of a roller coaster, with extreme twists and turns and joyously huge "hills" of comedy.  Second, the cast and the audience go on this adventure through several styles of theatre and comedy.  The classic commedia dell'arte style is foremost, with its three types of characters: servants, masters, and ill-matched lovers.  Although in this production, they don't literally wear masks, each character wears several guises as the plot progresses.  There is also a heavy nod to the British music hall tradition - direct audience address and participation, females doing male impersonation, and melodramatic performances.  (I'd suggest seeing this play as a warm up to next season's The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a musical done in the music hall style.)  And there is the trademark British camp style of bawdy, dirty comedy, sexually charged without being too smutty, probably best known in America from the old Benny Hill Show reruns that still play late night some places.  There are also extended bits of broad, demanding physical comedy, directed by Cal McCrystal.  These bits are a literal scream, they are so funny, including a sequence involving a very heavy trunk, and another concerning the serving of two dinners simultaneously, with the lead trying to take a portion of the food for himself without being caught.  Both of these bits involve members of the audience.  The night I attended all three were very game, good sports, though I won't tell you any more about what they did - I won't spoil your enjoyment.

The set and costume designer of the show, Mark Thompson, has done some fun work here, too.  In the music hall tradition, he has created lavish, multiple settings, all two dimensional, painted to look three dimensional.  The idea here is "flat" leaves more room for the actors.  As the play takes place in the 60's, the costumes have a Beatles/James Bond era feel to them, and they accentuate the comedic type of each character: the lead, a ravenously hungry guy is dressed in big plaids to accentuate the roundness; the saucy tart secretary wears business attire so tight it is amazing she can breathe, and it forces her to talk like Jessica Rabbit; the wannabe "actor" wears all black, including a turtleneck and a leather jacket, etc.

The Craze

The cast is really the big draw here, though.  Many of them have come to Broadway from the National Theatre production in London.  And while they have incorporated a few American actors into the fold seamlessly, one imagines that an all-American cast would somehow be lacking in getting across this most British of British plays.  Before the show itself starts, a skiffle band (guitar, bass, percussion - in this case a washboard and bicycle horn) takes the stage and does a set of songs about various gals of the British Empire and the like.  They are The Craze, made up of Jacob Colin Cohen (drums/percussion), Austin Moorhead (lead guitar), Jason Rabinowitz (guitar and lead vocals) and Charlie Rosen (bass).  Picture if you will, a cross between the early Beatles and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  They are a tight band of brothers, whose faces betray the silliness in the songs while they play with mock earnestness.  The songs, by Grant Olding are funny in that way that bar songs are - you can picture all out hilarity were the songs sung by drunken pub crawlers.  The Craze opens both acts, and frequently sings in between scenes.  They also accompany the entire cast by the time the show is through, as each cast member takes turns - from the lead to the walk-on scene changer/bit part playing ensemble - doing numbers between scenes.  Each number is made all the funnier by either the manner in which they are performed or by the instrumentation, which includes a complete set of bicycle horns tuned to different pitches and, at one point, an actor playing his bare chest like a drum.  I can completely understand that the score got a Tony nomination; I can also understand why this is not considered a musical.

The ensemble is very much a part of the hijinx - they not only move scenery, they play a variety of distinct walk-on roles.  The ensemble includes two very funny actors (I'm not telling why they stand out, but they do): David Ryan Smith and Sarah Manton.  In small supporting roles, Martyn Ellis, Fred Ridgeway and Trevor Laird provide high comedy and low brow commentary in three diverse "type" roles.

Suzie Toase and James Corden

Oliver Chris and Tom Edden

As the volatile lovers, Claire Lams and Daniel Rigby are a riot.  Ms. Lams finds new ways to make a dumb girl funny and endearing.  And Mr. Rigby threatens to steal every scene his in as the tortured "ACTOR".  From the way he walks, to the way he poses, to the way he delivers lines, every time he is onstage, you just know you are going to laugh heartily.  Another near scene-stealer is the saucy secretary played to sexy perfection by Suzie Toase (can that really be her name?).  With a chest that Dolly Parton would envy and curves like a mountain road, she is a treasure, winking at us and cooing her lines at us with dexterity.  But the biggest ham in the bunch has to be Tony nominee Tom Edden, who plays the hapless Alfie, an 80-something who is hard of hearing, and uses the meter on his pace maker to give himself energy when he needs it.  Mr. Edden sets a new standard for physical comedy, joining the pantheon of greats including The Three Stooges, Milton Berle and Lucille Ball.  His pratfalls and spills and running into doors is so natural, you'd swear it wasn't rehearsed.  And the running gag involving a tall set of stairs had the audience literally screaming in delight.  Yes, screaming.  I can only imagine how exhausted he must be at the end of an 8 show week.

Suzie Toase, Oliver Chris, James Corden and Jemima Rooper

James Corden and Oliver Chris

Oliver Chris, Tom Edden and James Corden

Oliver Chris and Jemima Rooper are the "two guvnors."  Mr. Chris, tall, suave and hilarious in his pompous playboy ways provides a much needed contrast in that his comedy is more sophisticated and dry.  His height often creates visual humor, and there are a couple of sight gags involving dropping his pants and taking off his shirt which are hilarious.  Ms. Rooper is the male impersonator.  Her male character is on the run, her female character is in search of her lover.  And she plays both to the hilt - convincing as a man and a riot as she plays the guy and gal and the same scene at times.

But it is the "one man" that is the glue that holds this enterprise together.  James Corden is making a true star-turn as Henshall, the servant with two masters.  To call this a tour-de-force performance is a gross understatement, as he must be both ringmaster and clown, crowd controller and leader of the riot.  Mr. Corden has such an ease about him and such a genuine warmth, you can't help but love the guy.  And his talents are wide-ranging and spot on.  Among other things, he does one segment with a trunk that must appear to be very heavy; by the time he's done, you'd swear there was an elephant inside the box.  He eats and drinks (and throws up) some nasty stuff, and runs around the set with the craze and glee of a five year old at a playground.  To tell you anymore of what he does in the course of two and half hours would give away too much of the fun.  Suffice it to say that Corden, a star in Britain, should be a star in the States now, too.

James Corden

If you are looking for a challenging, thought-provoking piece of theatre, don't bother getting a ticket for this show.  But if you want to have a fun, leave your cares behind, silly romp, as they say, run, don't walk to the Music Box Theatre and get a ticket for One Man, Two Guvnors!  You will laugh til you cry, and leave with a smile on your face.  And you may never look at a sandwich the same way again, either.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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