American audiences might be forgiven for thinking that One Man, Two Guvnors, the Richard Bean play nominally inspired by Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, involves elected officials rather than a bloke trying to please his employers. However, this play, which is precisely directed by Nicholas Hytner and was originally presented at London’s National Theatre with most of the Broadway performers, will not rise or fall here based on familiarity with English slang.
Word of mouth will be the crucial factor. Based on my preview audience, the producers need not fret. The man next to me was so convulsed with laughter that I feared his going into cardiac arrest. For myself, I felt a bit like George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who tells his wife, Martha, that upon hearing a joke at a party: “I smiled. I didn’t laugh.” Whereupon Martha insists, “You laughed your goddamn head off!”
OK, OK: I laughed my goddamn head off. At least I did during Act One, in which we are in Brighton in 1963, and Francis Henshall, portrayed by James Corden, agrees to work for a local gangster as well as a criminal-in-hiding. Apart from pressing shirts and serving dinner, Francis’s main job is to keep his guvnors from meeting.
Corden’s truest task, though, is to keep the audience in delight. This he accomplishes through monologues to theatergoers, in which Francis attempts to slake his omnipresent hunger by appealing for sandwiches. People are only too eager to oblige, proving once again that in our age the desire for the spotlight is greater than the fear of public humiliation.
London theatrical commentators have fretted that US audiences wouldn’t fully groove to the beat of the play’s British and early-Beatles-era references. But physical comedy, in which the evening abounds, tends to transcend cultural difference. Corden is an inspired clown, and as long as he – and Oliver Chris, as his tall, toffee-nosed guvnor, and Tom Edden, as an ancient waiter – are around the mirth is steady.
By the time the characters arrive at Act Two, and the plot has to be unraveled, the flimsiness of the play is exposed. A two-hour evening would have been bliss; two-and-a-half is a bit wearing. But the improv is inspired.