'One Man, Two Guvnors': British farce works splendidly on Broadway

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James Corden, the affable, nimble and hilarious star of "One Man, Two Guvnors," reminds us that live theater is an adventure that happens but once.

The fast-paced British farce, which begins with a band, The Craze, warming up the audience, has him asking for help from the audience, clearly part of the play. He asked two men to carry a trunk that his character, Francis Henshall, couldn't and that led to a series of pratfalls. This went fine.

A little later, Henshall, perpetually starving and eating, is feeling a bit peckish. So he asks if anyone has a sandwich. The Music Box Theater, one of Broadway's old gems, is a place where carrying anything other than a purse in is considered gauche. 

When he assures the audience he is serious, two men offer food.

"You do know this is the theater?" Henshall asks.

This leads to a few minutes of complete hysteria when one of the offerings is a hummus sandwich. Corden ( "The History Boys") seems to break character; he's on the ground, telling the audience that this break has messed with the plot. By this point, the band is cracking up.
 
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However, being as agile with improv as he is running about the stage, Corden regroups. Later, someone who saw this production in London tells me this, too, is part of the play and changes depending on what the audience has snuck in.

The band, called The Craze, is supposed to resemble the Beatles, and this takes place in Brighton, England, circa 1963. The story is not completely logical, but that's part of its appeal.

An ex-con, Charlie "The Duck" Clench (Fred Ridgeway), has offered his dim-bulb daughter, Pauline ( Claire Lams, "EastEnders"), as a bride to a man we never see. But Pauline is in love with Alan Dangle ( Daniel Rigby), an actor who struts about posing and overacting.

The guy to whom The Duck betrothed Pauline was murdered but his twin sister, Rachel Crabbe ( Jemima Rooper, "Kinky Boots"), pretends to be him. Wait, it gets far more involved.

Meanwhile Henshall, the bumbling, hungry center of the show, takes jobs -- two, in fact -- hence the two guvnors, which is old-fashioned British slang for employers. One is the woman pretending to be her brother. The other guvnor, the nasty Stanley Stubbers ( Oliver Chris, the U.K. version of "The Office"), killed Rachel's brother and happens to be engaged to Rachel.

Yes, it is ridiculously complicated and there are many other layers and side stories. In between, the band comes on stage, actors perform musical interludes, there's lots of running around, pratfalls and nonsense. And, it's a fun example of pure commedia dell'arte.

Doors fly open, and people get hit by doors, kicked and knocked out Befuddled Henshall, who wants to be a player and isn't a very good criminal, keeps everything running.

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There's a hysterical scene in a club restaurant, where Henshall is trying to serve his two guvnors. An ancient waiter, Alfie ( Tom Edden, "Doctor Who," a brilliant physical comedian), with many health problems, including shaky hands and a spotty pacemaker, continuously gets knocked out. It may not sound particularly entertaining to hear about a very old man getting clocked repeatedly, yet the charm of this show is that it is.

As is a man who can't keep his two employers' needs straight or stop fixating on food. The audience, however, leaves satisfied, and it's a given that by the next show, when Henshall asks if anyone has a sandwich, an entirely new scene will unfold.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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