Review - One Man, Two Guvnors & The Lyons
Broadway audiences can be forgiven if they don't quite recall being introduced to James Corden six years ago as one of The History Boys' ensemble of Oxbridge hopefuls, but in Richard Bean's One Man, Two Guvnors, the loveable harlequin makes an unforgettable sophomore appearance, taking center stage in an uproarious evening of slapstick, music and comical hijinks.
I say "harlequin" because Bean's sparkling script is based on Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell' arte classic, Servant of Two Masters, relocated to 1960s Brighton so that the colorful mod styles strike the contemporary eye as humorously as the traditional commedia styles would in the 1700s and a gender-bending aspect of the story fits snuggling into the era's unisex fashions.
The complicated plot - an excuse for pratfalls, running gags, lowbrow antics and a bit of audience involvement - concerns Corden's hungry, cash-poor Frances Henshall unwittingly accepting employment by both a snooty dolt of a gangster (Oliver Chris) and the sister of a man the dolt murdered (Jemima Rooper), who is disguised as her brother. The fact that the brother was promised to marry a young heiress (Claire Lams) who is actually in love with an aspiring actor (Daniel Rigby) adds a twist, as does the involvement of Suzie Toase as a hot bombshell accountant who stirs up another sort of hunger in Frances.
Like Zero Mostel in ...Forum and Jim Dale in Scapino, Corden is the fast-talking, film-flaming eye of the hurricane, setting all the stock characters - joyously played by a rip-roaring company under Nicholas Hytner's crackling direction - in motion while taking audience members into his confidence. I'm sure physical comedy director Cal McCrystal has a lot to do with keeping company members unharmed while diving into hilarious and fast-paced routines. Particularly in a kitchen scene where Frances is quickly trying to consume as much as possible while serving meals for both his guvnors, while being assisted by an elderly, jittery waiter (Tom Edden in a marvelous second-banana turn).
Early arrivals are entertained by a four piece band called The Craze, playing British pre-invasion style skiffle tunes. The boys make regular appearances throughout the evening, keeping the mood light while giving the audience a bit of a breather; a necessity for the many who are sure to be left breathless from laughter.
After a successful run at the Vineyard, Nicky Silver's hilarious verbal smack-down, The Lyons, arrives on Broadway a little leaner and perhaps even a little meaner. The acidic humor is no less funny than it was before, but some minor (and one major) revisions have strengthen the relationship between the two acts, making it a stronger, more effective piece.
When we first meet Rita Lyons, she's sitting in a hospital room casually thumbing through a furniture catalogue, asking her husband, Ben, who lies in bed, dying of cancer, to help her come up with ideas for redecorating the living room after he's gone.
"You could feign interest to be polite," she insists, reacting to his weakly growled, profanity-laced responses.
Don't look for the affection that lies beneath the anger. Whatever may have once been there is now buried under decades of spite and disappointment. But the pitch-perfect performances of Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa help make the evening fly. Lavin's meticulously subtle way with Silver's most hurtful remarks give the impression that Rita believes herself to be administering tough-love nurturing. When her husband expresses disappointment in the way his life turned out, she matter-of-factly explains to their daughter, "He's a very half-glass-empty kind of person, but by most people's standards he's had a very full life."