Apr 21, 2012

A Show of Farce

James Corden, in a war of choice with himself.
There's something about being in the presence of performers who will do anything to make us laugh—whose sole aim is to tickle us—that is at once utterly reassuring and a tad boring. I think it was Kelly Coffield, best known for being the token white chick on In Living Color, who once told me that working in sketch comedy amounted to competing with people who would light themselves on fire for a laugh. The actors in the elaborate new Broadway entertainment One Man, Two Guvnors don't quite light themselves on fire, but they do come close. I realized this roughly 15 minutes into this British-ized commedia confection, when the utterly charming lead, Francis Henshall (James Corden, a mischievous emcee here more than an actor), has an argument with himself that culminates in knockdown fisticuffs. Is he possessed? Does he have split-personality disorder? No; Corden and director Nicholas Hytner just want to make us laugh, and they'll use whatever garbage can lid is at hand (the fire comes later).

While the result of all this pulling-faces malarkey is entirely agreeable, it doesn't have the tautness or slam-bang danger of true farce, or the dead-serious stakes of the best comedy. Its farcical machinations all come with a meta wink, and while it's a very engaging wink indeed, it doesn't hide the slackness in writer Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner's conception. It seems to me that a good Arlecchino, like a good Pseudolus or a good Scapin, should scheme and scamper like his ass could be beaten at any minute, and he ideally shouldn't relax (as neither should we) until all the plot's loose ends are improbably tied up. But the supremely confident lead actor Corden doesn't convey that alert desperation; instead, he's a nearly Apatovian figure of affable torpor, and if he breaks a sweat in that wonderfully mismatched three-piece suit, I didn't see it.

One might object that meta-farce is precisely what Hytner and co. are up to here—that the hair-raising jeopardy and confusion and humiliation typically visited on the characters in a bona fide farce are instead cleverly diverted to another target (and in a way that can't be revealed by any self-respecting member of the press). Fair enough, but this seems a poor substitute for truly setting the plates spinning out of control within the world of the play, which would be one way to sustain the momentum of a show that loses steam pretty quickly, and whose energy throughout noticeably flags nearly every time the action isn't being enlivened and annotated by Corden. Indeed, once the synthetic chaos of One Man's first act comes to a riotous close, the evening's quota of risk vanishes along with the air quotes. We're left with slick, hyper-competent, no-stakes, smile-worthy antics rather than comedy with flesh and blood in it—a sketch comedy simulacrum of farce, really.

Obviously, though, I'm in the minority.

1 comment:

David Cote said...

Good to have a dissenting opinion on a show I loved, but I do think you're straw-manning a bit here.

One Man, Two Guvnors is not pure farce and as such has no obligation to stay within the parameters you set out here (which I don't even agree with, particularly). OMTG is a compound of Anglicized commedia dell'arte, music-hall variety, knockabout farce, and (for the English) retro comfort food ("Carry On" films). If you wanted to be very uncharitable to the mix, you could say it's One Play, Several Guvnors.

I understand that you felt there wasn't sufficient danger or desperation or cruelty in the overall premise and execution, but that doesn't diminish the fact that the physical comedy and this lovable collection of daffy social types are extremely funny. Unless, I guess, as you seem to indicate, you didn't laugh so much.