London Smash 'Two Guvnors' Comes To Broadway

Play associated audio

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.

"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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

He Died At 32, But A Young Artist Lives On In LA's Underground Museum

When Noah Davis founded the museum, he wanted to bring world-class art to a neighborhood he likened to a food desert, meaning no grocery stores or museums. Davis died a year ago Monday.
NPR

The Strange, Twisted Story Behind Seattle's Blackberries

Those tangled brambles are everywhere in the city, the legacy of an eccentric named Luther Burbank whose breeding experiments with crops can still be found on many American dinner plates.
WAMU 88.5

State Taxes, School Budgets And The Quality Of Public Education

Budget cutbacks have made it impossible for many states to finance their public schools. But some have bucked the trend by increasing taxes and earmarking those funds for education. Taxes, spending and the quality of public education.

NPR

Surfers And Scientists Team Up To Create The 'Perfect Wave'

Surfers once deemed man-made waves weak and mushy compared to the best that break along the coast. Then engineers and an 11-time world champion surfer showed just how good an artificial wave can be.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.