If the sight of a bug-eyed ancient waiter tottering upstairs with a scalding soup tureen clutched precariously in his palsied hands doesn’t move you to laughter, you have my condolences.
You’d better stay clear of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the irrepressibly funny update of a hoary old farce stuffed with pratfalls, slamming doors, invented languages, pneumatic young women triumphing over lecherous old men, and the odd hummus sandwich.
You may recognize the title as a variation on Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters,” a commedia dell’arte greatest hit of 1746 that no one’s actually ever seen.
For this National Theatre production, Richard Bean has updated the time to the early ‘60s and moved the action to Brighton -- Britain’s Coney Island, with a pier instead of a boardwalk, along with a surfeit of tattoo parlors and dubious-looking watering holes.
The play is about Francis Henshall, a cunning, hungry rascal who finds himself juggling the demands of two shady bosses -- one a sister impersonating her murdered twin brother, the other her lover and, as it happens, brother’s killer.
Each is, of course, unaware of the other’s presence in Brighton, and as played by Jemima Rooper and Oliver Chris, they’re irresistible.
James Corden, a pudgy beignet of a man, plays Francis, though roars may be the better verb. Whether egging on an audience member (“In your own time,” he says to one a bit slow on the uptake) or stuffing his mouth with the goodies meant for his bosses, Corden tends to shout his lines with contagious glee.
The endearing parade of characters includes an over-the-top actor (played to the hilt by Daniel Rigby), that over-endowed hanger-on (Suzie Toase) and the waiter (Tom Edden) whose bones clatter as much as the dishes he carries.
In one of several genius strokes that make the evening such a pleasure, scene changes are given over to a 60s-style skiffle band. The lead singer, Jason Rabinowitz, looks uncannily like John Lennon when he and Paul McCartney fronted a similar group in the pre-mop top era. The smart pastiche songs are by Grant Olding.
“One Man, Two Guvnors” is comic chaos, channeled and released with elegant precision. With a nod to the fine design team (Mark Thompson, sets and costumes; Mark Henderson, lighting), it’s unmistakably the work of director Nicholas Hytner, whose equally memorable National Theater exports to Broadway have included “Carousel,” “The Madness of George III” and “History Boys.”
“One Man, Two Guvnors” is as welcome as crocuses in spring.
At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ****
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
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