Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway.
A comic actor breaking character, or corpsing, by dissolving into laughter generally isn’t considered particularly professional. That’s one of the reasons that Jimmy Fallon’s SNL career, while successful, often isn’t afforded much respect: he was notorious for giggling through half his skits. But a flat condemnation of corpsing doesn’t work either because, in moderation at least, audiences tend to enjoy moments when the actors themselves start to laugh. Some of my favorite segments of The Daily Show, for example, have been when Jon Stewart is talking with one of the correspondents, and the satire is so absurd that both are clearly on the verge of cracking, and first one does and then the other, and then they pull it together only to break again. Laughter is infectious, and watching that infection spread can be hilarious.
But those moments still constitute a break of sorts—or we’re taught to think that way—so I was surprised at first when James Corden, the Tony-winning lead of One Man, Two Guvnors, started breaking into unabashed, out-of-character fits of laughter. It was funny and endearing, but so different from what I had expected that I was a bit taken aback. Eventually, I realized that the performance was even stranger than I’d first thought, for some moments that look like corpsing eventually reveal themselves to be part of the performance; they don’t represent a loss of control but rather complete control—which startled me even more.
One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Italian Servant of Two Masters, a famous work of commedia dell’arte, so perhaps this kind of toying with the fourth wall (to use a more contemporary turn of phrase) is an element of that genre. (I confess my knowledge of classic Italian theater is pretty shallow.) Regardless, it contributes to the oddly disorienting nature of One Man, which, in its fervent embrace of commedia dell’arte, manages to be both gleefully frivolous and unmistakably academic. It’s a lot of fun and very, very funny, but I never could quite settle on what to make of eccentric duality.
The premise for all the nonsense is insanely convoluted, as all farce premises are. The basic idea is that Francis (Corden), a gluttonous, good-hearted servant, takes on work from two masters, neither of whom know he is employed by the other, thus embroiling himself in the intrigues whirling around them. The first master, “Roscoe” (Jemima Rooper), is actually Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel, who is posing as her dead brother long enough to collect the dowry owed to Roscoe by the father of his dim fiancée, Pauline (Claire Lams). Pauline, who is in love with Alan (Daniel Rigby), a pretentious actor, isn’t happy to see “Roscoe,” but Rachel pushes ahead because she needs the money to help her own fiancé, Stanley (Oliver Chris), escape to Australia because at home in England, he is wanted for the murder of her brother, Roscoe. (Rachel loved her brother, but he was never fond of Stanley, whom she loves more.) Stanley, in disguise himself as he searches for Rachel, turns out to be Francis’s second master, for where would farce be without coincidence? Letters and money and threats fly back and forth, never quite reaching their intended targets, and poor Francis just wants to sit down to a nice dinner—or maybe enjoy the company of the friendly, buxom Dolly (Suzie Toase).
All of these are the stockiest of stock characters—that is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of commedia dell’arte—and they move (and often speak) at an absolutely manic pace. Corden, at the center of things, makes a delightful clown, both vulgar and innocent, so artless in his guile as to be functionally guileless. He uses an irresistibly cheeky smile to great effect and bounces through pratfalls and cartwheels and sprints from one slamming door to another with tireless verve. Playwright Richard Bean has built opportunities for improvisation into the script, and although, in retrospect, I believe that some of what I initially assumed to be spontaneous was actually rehearsed, Corden executes all of it in such a happy, childlike frenzy that the distinction is meaningless: everything feels fresh, and that’s what truly matters.
Corden is so big and broad that he overshadows the rest of the cast, but that’s hardly because of any limitations on the part of the other actors. Rooper and Chris, as the quasi-villainous couple Rachel and Stanley, ramp steadily up from understatedly droll to wildly sidesplitting until they finally reunite in an explosion of bawdy zaniness. Rigby parodies actorly self-indulgence with relish, and Lams and Toase—playing, respectively, the stereotypical naive ditz and the stereotypical lewd flirt—give their overfamiliar characters enough zest to keep them interesting.
The main element keeping things interesting, though, is the sheer weirdness of the note-for-note transposition of commedia dell’arte into a stylized 1960s setting, complete with Beatles allusions, a rockabilly band, and at least one acid left-field reference to the coming Thatcher years. Some of the stereotyping might have been unforgivably stale if, you know, that weren’t the whole point of the enterprise—exploring the roots of comic clichés that linger to this day—and if it all weren’t pitched to such an insane degree that hackneyed somehow becomes a bit brilliant. Just as the breaking doesn’t actually break anything, the wooden stock elements somehow transmute into gold. What could be funnier than that?