Francis Henshall (James Corden) has an enormous appetite for most things, it would seem: for life, for attention, and, most appropriately, for food. It’s the latter quest that drives him to desperately agree to work for two separate servants in the rabble-rousing West End import One Man, Two Guvnors.
Unfolding rather glibly under Nicholas Hytner’s energized but grounded direction, the basic spider-web of the show’s plot is thus: Francis must earn his dough by working for both high-class buffoon Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) as well as Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper). Rachel is masquerading as her brother Roscoe, who has actually been murdered (don’t cry for him, United States: the truth is, the play dwells very little on him), which confuses matters, as Roscoe had been betrothed to heiress Pauline Clench (Claire Lans). Pauline, meanwhile, only has eyes for aspiring actor Alan Dangle (Daniel Rigby), while Stanley pines for, yes, Rachel. Circumstances reach a fever pitch as Francis must prevent these two from discovering each other.
These hilarious missed connections all come courtesy of playwright Richard Bean, who has adapted One Man from Carlo Goldini’s 1746 Italian farce The Servant of Two Masters. And as exhilaratingly entertaining as they are, they’re merely the backdrop for Corden to display a winning combination of physical spryness, verbal dexterity, and – this is the key part – improvisatory skill that makes his turn one of the most heroic performances seen on the Great White Way I years.
Particularly on the night I saw it. I cannot be sure if this occurs every night, but One Man calls on a small degree of audience participation, which might be rigged or might be truly voluntary (my guess? It’s a bit of both). But Corden’s fourth-wall shattering seemed to open up communication between the paid actors and the paying audience, several of whom offered up their own food (a hummus sandwich, some Starbucks pound cake) to Francis and, without breaking character, Corden managed to address the audience and steer the show back on course. He even managed to garner a laugh at his inability to recognize the Starbucks logo. Why would he? The show occurs, as Mark Thompson’s costumes and sets and the Budd Holly-esque music performed by The Craze (comprised of Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen, and Jacob Colin Cohen) remind, in the mid-1960s coastal town of Brighton.
Is there more to One Man? Yes, but also, ultimately no. Social commentary gets lost under Bean’s plot machinations, which rarely feel organic but are the stuff of classic commedia dell’arte, about which Corden-as-Francis eventually educates the audience. What rules the day is not what happens, but how it happens, and it’s Hytner’s remarkably staged pratfalls and perfectly timed recoveries (physical comedy director Cal McCrystal earns major plaudits) that impress at the same level of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Corden, of course, couldn’t bounce around through this mayhem on his own. Chris, in particular, makes for a fabulous fuddy duddy and also demonstrates stunning prowess with both Bean’s lines and stunt work. Tom Edden, summoning the spirit of Marty Feldman, also limps away with many a moment as lame waiter Alfie in the riotous closing scene of the first act. Make no mistake about it: this is serious comedy.
One Man, Two Guvnors
Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. 212-239-6200. $126.50. http://www.onemantwoguvnorsbroadway.com/
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