Having two jobs is a lot of work, but it shouldn’t feel as laborious as it does in this sporadically successful farce.
It’s a sharp letdown when a show that looks on paper like one of the highlights of the season fails to come together. That’s the case with One Man, Two Guvnors at Court Theatre. British scribe Richard Bean’s update of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century commedia-style farce to mod 1963 Brighton, England, arrives following feverish praise for its London and Broadway productions, much of it centered on the Tony-winning performance of star James Corden (who’s since joined the celebrity parlor-games circuit of late-night TV). Court artistic director Charles Newell assembled a roster of heavy hitters like Francis Guinan, Hollis Resnik and Alex Goodrich; and rather than having a separate onstage band play the show’s skiffle-style tunes, they’re performed by the cast’s talented multi-instrumentalists, under the music direction of Doug Peck.
Again, this all sounds like it should delight. But there’s a decidedly limited payoff in Court’s production, which suffers from low specificity and never quite jells into anything cohesive or convincing. The plot, loosely sketched, has Francis Henshall (the Corden role, here played by Timothy Edward Kane) serving as gofer for two different guvnors (or bosses)—diminutive gangster Roscoe Crabbe (Elizabeth Ledo) and foppish Stanley Stubbers (Erik Hellman).
Roscoe is the betrothed of ditzy Pauline Clench (Chaon Cross), but Pauline wants to marry her true love, aspiring actor Alan Dangle (Goodrich). But Roscoe isn’t really Roscoe; he’s Roscoe’s twin sister Rachel in disguise, as Roscoe’s been killed by Stanley, Rachel’s true love. Francis expends great energy—and much physical comedy—keeping his two guvnors apart when they only need come together to solve everybody’s problems.
The story barely registers (nor, perhaps, is it meant to). Unfortunately, neither do many of the characters. They’re meant to be archetypes, sure, translations of the stock characters of commedia dell’arte. But maybe because the actors are constantly shifting out of character to pick up a guitar (invariably lowering the stakes and momentum) or engage in fourth-wall breaking audience interaction bits, we never really get invested in them in character. Instead, One Man plays like a series of self-conscious set pieces. And at the center, Kane, one of the city’s finest leading men, feels miscast. Francis’s clowning needs to look effortless, but in his strenuous performance here, you can always see the work.
Court Theatre. By Richard Bean. Directed by Charles Newell. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.