The Servant of Two Masters, an 18th century farce by Carlo Goldoni that pays tribute to the sketch comedy and improvisational anarchy of Italian commedia dell’ arte, is hardly ever revived in New York. But that won’t stop Broadway audiences from eating up One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s modernized take on the play. It is undoubtedly the funniest, most insane show of any kind you’ll find this season.
James Corden, the show’s spirited, putty-faced star and all-purpose harlequin, previously appeared on Broadway in The History Boys and has since become a BBC comedy star. He plays Francis Hanshall, a crafty servant in early 1960s Brighton. Broke and feeling desperately hungry, he manages to find work with two different employers, neither of whom knows that he’s making money off both of them.
His first boss, Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), wears men’s clothing, acts like a gangster and pretends to be her dead brother. His second boss, the strange boarding school veteran Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris), is both Rachel’s boyfriend and the man who killed her brother.
In the show’s most ingenious and riotous scene, Corden attempts to serve dinner to both bosses simultaneously while also stealing as much as he can for himself and dealing with a zombie-like waiter (Tom Edden in a priceless cameo performance) who keeps shaking and falling down the stairs.
Corden makes for an engaging and excited narrator who frequently speaks directly to the audience and even invites a few onstage for some unexpected cameos. For instance, two men are asked to come onstage to help him lift a chest under his management. Don’t ask about the shy woman who lends a hand during the dinner scene. But best of all is when Corden criticizes the audience’s responses to his own questions.
Chris is hilariously full of himself as the strange boarding school veteran Stanley, while Rooper convincingly transforms herself into a heated Ringo Starr lookalike. Another standout is Daniel Rigby as an exceedingly bad actor who insists on strutting around in leather.
Although Nicholas Hytner’s expertly staged production admittedly loses some steam during act two (Hanshall, his hunger finally satiated, now aims for romance), it remains a riotous delight full of witty verbal wordplay and crude, often gross physical humor. Since it is an exceedingly British show, some of the dialogue gets lost in transition, but that hardly seems to matter. Even the scene changes, during which a snazzy all-male band performs, are full of lively excitement.