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James Corden hilariously crosses pond in 'One Man, Two Guvnors'

James CordenMusic IndustryBritainMatthew BroderickNicholas Hytner

NEW YORK -- The old "contents may have shifted during flight" warning seemed especially worrying for "One Man, Two Guvnors," the London smash from the National Theatre of Great Britain that opened last week on Broadway.
 
Although the play by Richard Bean is a freehand adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's 18th century classic "The Servant of Two Masters," a commedia-dell'arte-inspired romp with timeless bona fides, not everyone was certain whether the production's British humor style would tickle American audiences. Well, to go by the gales of laughter pouring out of the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street, the gags, jokes and pratfalls, under the unerring direction of Nicholas Hytner (with assistance from "physical comedy director" Cal McCrystal) have lost none of their potency in the overseas voyage. In fact, the last time I heard laughter this uproarious in the theater, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were firing Mel Brooks’ zingers in "The Producers" and grown men were convulsing in fits of silliness. 

Set in Brighton, England, in 1963, “One Man, Two Guvnors” marshals a cast of characters that would have felt right at home on “The Benny Hill Show.” And at the delightfully tacky center of it all is James Corden’s Francis Henshall, an insatiable Humpty Dumpty who has hired himself out to two masters he’s determined to keep apart while doubling his wages and calories.   

There’s much to say about Corden’s performance, which seems to have single-handedly revived Broadway’s love for slapstick.  The look stamped on his face, a magnificent mix of innocence and connivance, is like that of a pudgy boy who has just discovered cookie dough.  But let’s save that discussion for an upcoming feature wherein I get to embarrass this modest English actor, who first came to my attention in “The History Boys” and has since gone on to become a big comedy star in Britain, by invoking comparisons to Bert Lahr and Zero Mostel.

In the meantime, please be aware, Southern California theater-lovers, that there will be encore screenings of the National Theatre Live broadcast of “One Man, Two Guvnors” this spring in select cinemas and performing arts venues.  For information, visit www.ntlive.com.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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