Adapted from The Servant of Two Masters, the new comedy One Man, Two Guvnors follows the "always famished and easily confused" Francis Henshall (James Corden, left), who must combat his own befuddlement while keeping both of his employers — a local gangster and criminal-in-hiding Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) — from meeting.
If you weren't a college theater major, you can be forgiven for not knowing much about commedia dell'arte, the 500-year-old theatrical tradition that Carlo Goldoni used for his comedy The Servant of Two Masters in 1743. Contemporary playwright Richard Bean has adapted that play into the decidedly British laugh riot One Man, Two Guvnors — and he says all you really need to know about commedia is ... well, it's funny.
"Commedia dell'arte," Bean says, "is very physical comedy, and there's a lot of clowning in it. ... You won't find much irony in this play. You know, if you think this is gonna be one of those very sophisticated British ironic comedies, no. ... We're a little bit more Benny Hill than Monty Python."
Commedia deals with stock characters — the clown, the saucy maid, the oppressive father, the shady lawyer — all of whom show up in One Man, Two Guvnors, albeit in the form of British stereotypes. The play showcases the comic talents of James Corden, a British TV star.
"The play is about stock characters and stereotypes, quite deliberately," Bean says. "It's not a failing of the play that they're stereotypes; it's actually pretty much the point of the play. And James' character is a fat guy who's hungry. It's as simple as that. In the second half, he's a fat guy who's horny."
In the play, Corden's character, Francis, is asked by the object of his affections whether he prefers eating or making love.
"It's a tough one that, innit?" Francis says. "I don't know!"
Corden says the play is the most fun he's ever had with his clothes on.
"I've never heard noise like that in a theater, like the noise that's generated in the audience from this play," Corden says.
Every Night, It's A New Show
Part of that noise comes from Corden's direct interactions with audience members. Director Nicholas Hytner says that just as commedia dell'arte made use of improvisation, Bean's play has moments that allow for spontaneous mayhem.
Henshall's second master is Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), who's Stubbers' secret lover — and posing as her dead mobster brother, whom Stubbers has killed.
"One of the things that we do is a lot of audience participation," Hytner says. "You should be warned — if you sit on the front row, you might be pulled up onto the stage."
Corden, preparing to go on for his 238th performance of the play — and his fifth in New York — puts it another way.
"I've never actually done the same show twice," he says. "I just have this great freedom, I guess, to really see how the night's panning out, and every night I never quite know what I'm gonna say, you know?"
One Man, Two Guvnors is set in the English seaside town of Brighton in 1963. It features original songs in the pre-Beatles British pop style called skiffle, and all the actors do little solos with the onstage band during scene changes. Hytner says Brighton was the perfect British equivalent for Venice — where disguised lovers hide out in The Servant of Two Masters.
"It's where you go for a dirty weekend; it's always had a slightly shady criminal underworld," Hytner says. "There are a lot of hotels, a lot of pubs, a lot of people walking along the promenade, courting each other — and exactly where you'd go if you were on the run from the law in the big city."
The show's creators say very little has changed with its trans-Atlantic crossing — just some language that American audiences might find confusing, says Hytner.
"We've come here, genuinely, in all humility," Hytner says. "This is what we find funny; if you find it funny, we're delighted. We think you'll find it funny because you find Fawlty Towers funny, but it is English humor."