The language of theater criticism wasn’t really adequate to the task of describing James Corden’s performance last year in “One Man, Two Guvnors’’ on Broadway. The language of meteorology — tornado, hailstorm, hurricane — brought you closer to the mark.
Corden’s genius for physical comedy helped make a hit out of Richard Bean’s farce, and earned Corden the Tony Award for best actor in a play. (The British actor-comedian prevailed over movie star Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was expected to win for his powerhouse portrayal of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.’’)
Suffice it to say that very few plays are as closely associated with a particular performer as “One Man, Two Guvnors’’ is with Corden. Any current production faces a challenge akin to, say, staging “The Producers’’ while Nathan Lane’s aura still clung to the show. Without the signature star’s brand of magic to buoy the proceedings, how does it hold up?
A partial answer can be found at Lyric Stage Company, which has chosen to kick off its 40th season with “One Man, Two Guvnors.’’ Directed by the redoubtable Spiro Veloudos, the Lyric’s “One Man’’ is a reasonably enjoyable farrago of slammed doors and slapped faces. But it seldom reaches the delirious comic heights of the Broadway production or, for that matter, of Yale Repertory Theatre’s performance in Boston earlier this year of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters,’’ the 18th-century commedia dell’arte classic on which “One Man’’ is based.
The thinness of Bean’s script is more apparent in the Lyric’s “One Man,’’ partly because the cast doesn’t maintain a breakneck pace or collectively display the pinpoint timing (or grasp of British music-hall comedy traditions) that would enable the production to burst through the story’s limitations and become something special.
There are a number of individual performances to savor, however, and one of them is by Neil A. Casey, who plays Francis Henshall, the “One Man’’ of the title, a perpetually hungry conniver in the British seaside town of Brighton in 1963. Though no Corden, Casey is fun to watch. He’s got a gleam in his eye and a smile that hovers somewhere between conspiratorial and maniacal, along with a high voice that goes higher still when he plaintively asks the question that is always on his mind: “When am I going to eat?’’
Attired in plaid pants and two-toned shoes (the clever costumes are by Tyler Kinney), Francis spends much of the play frantically trying to conceal the fact that he’s working as an assistant to two employers, or “guvnors,’’ and to prevent them from meeting each other so he can hang on to both jobs.
One of his employers, ostensibly a gangsterish type named Roscoe Crabbe, is in fact Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel (McCaela Donovan), disguised as Roscoe. That gentleman regrettably cannot be present, having been killed by Rachel’s lover, the foppish Stanley Stubbers (Dan Whelton, excellent). As it happens, Stanley is Francis’s other employer.
Meanwhile, as they say, a none-too-bright young lady named Pauline Clench (Tiffany Chen) is determined to resist heavy pressure from her father (Dale Place) to marry Roscoe. Who is not, as previously mentioned, Roscoe at all. Pauline wants instead to elope with an actor in a Beatles haircut named Alan, played with amusing histrionic flair by Alejandro Simoes.
Once he manages to get himself fed, Francis is free to clumsily but ardently pursue a romance of his own with Dolly (Aimee Doherty, quite good), a bookkeeper with ahead-of-her-time feminist views. In one of the funniest moments of “One Man,’’ Dolly confidently predicts that one day a woman shall be prime minister of Britain, and social justice shall be her top concern, and war will be the last thing on her enlightened liberal mind.
With musical interludes as punctuation, plenty of slapstick sequences, and an ensemble that includes Larry Coen as a Latin-spouting attorney and John Davin as a doddering octogenarian waiter, “One Man’’ trips along engagingly without ever quite spiraling into all-out comic mayhem, without ever quite capturing that lightning in a bottle. It’s a show that could well lift your spirits — just not high enough.