One Man, Two Guvnors

Every time I walk into the Music Box Theatre, I get nostalgic thinking about its rich history. And this time was no different. I thought about seeing the remarkable Mark Rylance in two plays at the Music Box last season (Jerusalem and La Bete). I thought about how Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men premiered at the Music Box in November 1989, and how years later his other play, The Farnsworth Invention, premiered at the same theatre in October 2007. I thought about the fact that the theatre has kept its name since it opened in 1921. I thought about that opening, and that Irving Berlin created the theatre so he could showcase what became his Music Box Revues. The Music Box Revues, of course, were the amuse bouche, if you will, for musicals; they (and other similar revues and follies) planted the seeds for what would become a venerated institution, American Musical Theatre. And so it seemed terrifically fitting that One Man, Two Guvnors, which is directly rooted in Commedia dell’Arte, should be playing at the Music Box—an historic theatre housing an homage to theatre history. 

Based on Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, imported from the National Theatre of Great Britain, is basically about that, one man with two guvnors (that’s the English slang for employers). Some characters (of the commedia stock variety) are in disguise, others are on the lam, while others just want to marry…and become an actor. The point of commedia isn’t the plot, though, it’s the hilarious (and, in the form’s earliest years, improvised) hijinks that ensue while the characters are after a rather base objective.

And those hijinks are fun, if not as hilarious as the hype surrounding this show makes them seem. This is good, well-timed farce and physical comedy. (The play is directed by Nicholas Hytner, while physical comedy direction by Cal McCrystal.) I like a good percussive and comedic slew of door slams (a la Noises Off), but for my taste, the funniest moments of the show were borne of the British wit and word play.
(***Warning: Spoilers below!***)
Sure, there were lots of bits, but I found them to be unnecessarily time consuming. One Man, Two Guvnors finds the titular man, Francis Henshall (the Tony-nominated James Corden), interacting with the “audience.” The improvised feel is energizing and recalls the play’s commedia roots. But much like there was outrage when Goldoni committed the sin of writing down commedia rather than letting the players improvise, I felt underwhelmed (though not quite outraged) by the scripted “improvisations” of the play. You see, the “audience” members Corden interacts with are so clearly plants. The plants play it off well, but knowing the interaction and spontaneity isn’t genuine made me roll my eyes and wish they’d just get on with some more witty banter, or least an expertly executed pratfall by Tom Edden, the thirty-something featured actor who earned a Tony nomination for playing a decrepit 87 year old man. 

Or else I wished to hear more from The Craze, the four-piece skiffle band that provides musical entertainment before, during and after the show. Jason Rabinowtiz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen and Jacob Colin Cohen perform songs written by Grant Olding and provide musical interludes during scene changes. Having The Craze perform as they do in what is otherwise a straight play (read: not a musical) isn’t so crazy: as the dramaturgical note in the Playbill reminds us, commedia performances were “regularly interrupted by music [and] dancing…known as lazzi.”

To be sure: One Man, Two Guvnors is funny and certainly had me laughing out loud throughout the show. But for my money, if I want laughs this season, I’ll go to the acerbic and illuminating Clybourne Park, the sharp and spot-on The Lyons or the scrappy, clever and magical Peter and theStarcatcher.

For more information about One Man, Two Guvnors, visit the play's official website. (Note that it's also still playing at the National Theatre.)