June 6, 2012

Are the Brits Really All That Funny?

To be fair, I should admit that I’m not really into comedy. And I'm completely mystified by British humor. I like a witty joke as much as the next bloke but the low-brow, drop-the-drawers silliness that the Brits love leaves me stonefaced.

I’ve never seen a complete episode of Monty Python, which, needless to say, put me at a disadvantage when I saw Spamalot.  I was told that no one could resist Dame Edna but I had no trouble holding her at arms length either.  And so it was with no little trepidation that I set off to see three supposedly funny British imports over the last month or so.

All three—One Man, Two Guvnors; Don’t Dress for Dinner and Potted Potter—drew raves on the other side of the Atlantic.  Here, in brief, is what I thought of each: 

One Man, Two Guvnors:  Even a down-on-comedy sourpuss like me couldn’t resist the zany antics that director Nicholas Hytner has orchestrated for Richard Bean’s adaptation of the 18th century Carlo Goldoni farce The Servant of Two Masters, which itself is an homage to commedia dell arte. 

Bean and Hytner update the action to 1962, right on the eve of the swinging London era, and populate it with a gaggle of stock characters including the naïve ingénue, the preening blowhard, the lusty sexpot, the pompous man of letters, the plucky girl masquerading as a man, and of course, a bumbling clown.

In the commedia tradition, there is slapstick (brilliantly choreographed by physical comedy director Cal McCrystal and performed, by among others, the droopy-eyed Tom Edden, who deservedly has gotten a Tony nomination for his antics as an aged waiter) and musical interludes (performed by The Craze, an onstage band, whose music, played in a warm-up session before the show starts and during scene changes, is so toe-tappingly amusing that composer Grant Olding got a Tony nod for Best Score even though the show isn’t even a musical). 

But the biggest kudos (and belly laughs) have to go to the also-Tony nominated James Corden, the roly-poly guy from The History Boys, who here plays the titular servant with such go-for-broke comedic brio that even I succumbed. As did my friend June, who also tends to favor more serious fare. “I wouldn’t have seen this on my own,” she said with a big grin on her face as we made our way out of The Music Box theater.  “But I’m glad I did.”  Me too. There isn’t a more entertaining show now playing on Broadway.

Don’t Dress for Dinner:  This classic farce  ran for six years when it played in London back in the ‘90s.  It’s a companion piece to Boeing-Boing, which introduced Mark Rylance to Broadway, had theatergoers rolling in the aisles and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2008. But lightening hasn’t struck twice with this production, which is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre’s American Airlines Theatre. 

Playwright Marc Camoletti has kept the same main characters, Bernard, a Parisian bon vivant who thrives on simultaneous love affairs, and his meek best friend Robert and he's put them into another situation of mistaken identities and slamming doors.

Unfortunately director John Tillinger doesn’t have the light touch that Matthew Warchus used to make Boeing-Boeing such a fluffy soufflé and Ben Daniels, a terrific dramatic actor, lacks the comic finesse that Rylance brought to Robert. 

Farce is no fun when you can see the actors straining for the laughs. And it isn’t just me; the laughter at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended grew quieter and quieter as the evening went on.

But there is one bright spot: Spencer Kayden, the comedic minx last seen on Broadway as Little Sally in Urinetown, is back in hilarious form as a cook who is pressed into other services.  Kayden gets the extravagance that farce requires and isn’t afraid to luxuriate in it. She’s up for a Tony but whether she wins or not, we can only pray that it won’t be another decade before she’s back on the boards.

Potted Potter: An unabashed Harry Potter fan, I had actually looked forward to this show, which promised a parody that would condense all seven books in J.K. Rowling’s series about the boy wizard who triumphs over evil into just 70 minutes, with two guys playing some 300 characters.  I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the goofy kids’ show now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre.

Potted Potter's writers and stars are Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson, an Abbott-and-Costello like pair, in which the tall gangly Clarkson plays the dumb one who supposedly hasn’t read the Potter books and so constantly mixes up their plots. 

There are loads of groaner puns and silly sight gags. There’s audience involvement—two kids are summoned onstage, the rest of the audience gets to participate in a call and response and to bat around a beach ball. There’s also some gross-out humor (to my dismay, I can’t get the picture out of my head of Clarkson drooling chocolate).

The show was nominated for an Olivier award when it played in London. The kids at the performance I attended ate it up. And my now- thirtysomething niece Jennifer, a big Harry fan when the books first came out, found the show to be “hilarious.”  I barely cracked a smile.  But, as I said, I’m not high on low comedy.

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