The new Broadway show "One Man, Two Guvnors" is the hoot of the season. On one level, it's a story about a dum-dum who becomes the full-time lackey for two different shady employers and who hasn't the brains to handle one full-time job, let alone two. On another level, it's a vehicle for running wonderfully amok — and taking an audience along.
Whatever it is, I dare you to see it and not laugh out loud, a lot. "One Man, Two Guvnors," which opened Wednesday night, is from the National Theatre of Great Britain, and it comes intact with a four-piece band called The Craze. The show is both a musical and a play — The Craze plays its brand of '60s music to accompany the play, set in the same period.
While the quartet — and sometimes, the cast — plays, a crew behind the curtain arranges Mark Thompson's richly designed scenery to depict different locations. It's a wonder there a set left at all by the end, given that the cast is happily chewing the scenery all night.
Richard Bean modeled his wildly funny "One Man, Two Guvnors" on a 1743 play by Carlo Goldini called "Servant of Two Masters," with essentially the same plot and sensibility: a blithering glutton uses everyone he meets to either fill his belly or his wallet, yet the people he manipulates have their own schemes and are depending on him to help make them work.
"Servant of Two Masters" is a late example of commedia dell'Arte, Italian productions that used stock characters and often-overdone improvisation to fit any plot that came along. The actors made careers playing a single character-type for life.
"One Man, Two Guvnors" is a triumphant update of that form; the cast appears to gleefully break from the plot in order to riff, or gloms on to the most ridiculous ideas. Try, for instance, eating the cheese off a mousetrap and see what happens.
"One Man, Two Guvnors" is full of these types, the chief one being the harlequin: a dim wit who bungles his way through his low life. He's portrayed by James Corden (the stage and movie versions of "The History Boys"), a portly imp of an actor who rules the show. Corden gleefully plays the fool; his performance makes a case for pratfalls, prancing and general hamming as separate Tony Award categories. (Corden is almost outdone in the second act by Tom Edden, who plays a wobbly, google-eyed octogenarian waiter and takes the most raucously funny tumbles you'll see by one actor in a single show, maybe ever.)
Corden is remarkable in the way he makes his character bamboozle the others and even the theatergoers, swept into the action in several ways that I won't reveal, except to say that the pranks are cunning. I got the feeling as the show moved on that the audience believed we were no longer onlookers, but were conspiring with the actors to bring the whole thing off — a real feat for the cast and the production.
To give you an idea of the complexity of the show's routines, consider that it has two directors. The director is Nicholas Hytner, who leads the National Theatre. The "physical comedy director," as he's called in the playbill, is Cal McCrystal. They direct a spot-on cast that include Suzie Toase as a buxom bookkeeper, Trevor Laird and Fred Ridgeway as former jailbirds turned connivers, Claire Lams as a clueless fiancee, Daniel Rigby as a round-the-clock thespian, Jemima Rooper as a devious twin in disguise, and Oliver Chris as her murderous lover in hiding. The character types are the very ingredients for a recipe of havoc. The resulting dish is a delight.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
"One Man, Two Guvnors" is at the Music Box, 239 West 45th St., New York.