Playwright: Richard Bean. At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 773-753-4472 or CourtTheatre.org; $45-$65. Runs through: June 12
It's been joked that the United States and the United Kingdom are "two nations divided by a common language." Unfortunately, that quip applies to Court Theatre's disappointing U.S. stab at Richard Bean's hit British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors in its Chicago premiere.
Bean's 1960s British updating of Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Italian commedia dell'arte play The Servant of Two Masters was greeted with critical hosannas when it debuted in 2011 at London's National Theatre. The show commercially transferred to London's West End and onto Broadway, serving as a marvelous vehicle for actor/writer James Corden ( His Tony Award-winning performance as the harried servant Francis Henshall caught the attention of late-night CBS-TV executives and the rest is Carpool Karaoke history ).
So understandably expectations were very high for Court's take on Bean's knock-about farceespecially since the cast is filled with expert Chicago actor/musicians like Timothy Edward Kane, Hollis Resnik, Ross Lehman, Francis Guinan, Elizabeth Ledo, Alex Goodrich, Allen Gilmore, Erik Hellman and more who share a number of Jeff Awards between them. So why does Court Theatre's production feel like a recipe for comedy gone awry?
One culprit is the very Britishness of Bean's script, with references that often slip past Americans. One Man, Two Guvnors is also filled with fun Grant Olding "skiffle music" songs, a briefly popular and goofy British music craze of the late 1950s and early '60s.
But blame also can be aimed at director Charles Newell working in tandem with clowning movement consultant Christopher Bayes. A lot of the slapstick bitsparticularly people getting bashed in the facewear out their welcome pretty quickly.
Newell also is hampered by the venue's space restrictions. Bean's script calls for multiple locations. Original director Nicholas Hytner adeptly deployed those skiffle songs to keep the comic energy up while concealing scene changes.
For Court, set designer Collette Pollard provides a lovely generalized Brighton pier. Unfortunately it doesn't adapt too well for the other locationsparticularly in an upper-floor restaurant anteroom that should hint at some stairs for an elderly waiter to repeatedly trip down.
Newell's unclear delineation of the actors as the musicians also lessens the dramatic thrust. Rather than characters caught up in comic situations, the show becomes more about actors preening and messing about with instruments.
If you want to see what made One Man, Two Guvors such a comedy phenomenon, see the cinema retransmission this summer of the NT Live taping that captured the original production ( a full list of local screenings can be found at www.ntlive.com ). You'll also see how the Brits ultimately defeated the typically stellar American cast and crew assembled for Court Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors.