At one point, somewhere deep in the second act of One Man, Two Guvnors — which opened last week at the Music Box Theatre — I actually wondered if I was laughing my face off. Like, my face hurt from laughing. We’re talking actual, measurable pain in my face.
Because this nutty show, which recently transferred from London’s National Theatre, is really funny. I cannot think of many shows that provoke such a wildly balls-out, stop-it-Mary-before-I-pee-myself reaction from an audience.
This production, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner, is basically perfect. A slyly sophisticated meld of British variety show and music hall humor, and comedia dell’arte — there’s a cheat sheet about that in your program if you don’t have time to google it at intermission — the show essentially presents you with characters who fall within a couple of specific types — court jesters, masters and servants, damsels in distress. And then they all do crazy things.
They swindle each other. They fall in and out of love. They devise elaborate plots that all fail. The details of the plot don’t really matter, and it’s a good thing, because in One Man, Two Guvnors, many of them are basically inscrutable. You’re laughing too hard to really notice, and the performances onstage outshine the play itself so solidly that you’ll forget it’s there.
Super-cuddly James Corden plays Francis, a guy who gets hung up working for two people. Of course, the two people are involved in simultaneous, shady, overlapping plots, but neither of them really knows that. Thus we’re setup for all kinds of zaniness — mis-delivered letters, the toppling of chairs, mistaken identities, fish heads strewn across the floor. And Corden plays both the physical comedy and the wordplay with aplomb and with an appealing charm. When Francis addresses the audience, it’s no wonder that everyone in the house seems to want to play along.
Equally great is Oliver Chris, who plays Stanley Stubbers, one of Francis’s guvnors. He gets some of the best lines in the play. (Sample: “Wrap my balls in bacon and send me to the nurse.”) He’s the kind of faux-pompous, creepy bad guy that you weirdly find yourself rooting for just so he’ll be onstage more, and say more funny things.
And I laughed at those funny things. Which brings me to the hardest part of this review: Much as I admired this show, and can see it for what it is – utterly sound, brilliantly executed – I don’t really think I loved it.
I know this is a weird position to take, having laughed (a lot) at something that’s intended to be funny. But listening to my own reaction, and to the audience’s reaction – we’re talking like, laughter to split seams and shake rafters — I had to wonder: Are the jokes really this funny? Because well-constructed as they are, they’re still basically about spilled food and farting. Or is the laughter fueled by the sound of the laughter itself, by collective expectation, or the pressure of paying $120 a ticket?
And ultimately, there’s also a lot that the show resolutely does not do. It won’t move you or shock you or ask you any hard questions about much of anything. It’s not emotional in any specific way. And after two-and-a-half hours, yucking it up over a story you don’t care about starts to feel kind of… empty.
The Book of Mormon throws its audiences into similar, scary-loud paroxysms of hilarity, but it does so with an emotionally engrossing story. I also know people who find The Book of Mormon genuinely offensive and insensitive. Its wild success with audiences is part of its brilliant idiosyncrasy — that it works despite, and because of, the risks it takes. With One Man, Two Guvnors, you can’t help but think that everyone, from your nine-year-old cousin to your grandmother, would think this show is high. Larious. If that’s true, is the show really putting all that much on the line?
The ironic thing is that I’d probably encourage everyone to see One Man, Two Guvnors — including my nine-year-old cousin and my grandmother. It’s a riot. They’d all have a great time. The audience around them – if not the show itself – would basically guarantee that much.
photo: The Guardian