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James Corden, 'One Man' and a plethora of talent

The ace Brit funnyman making Broadway audiences roll with laughter in 'One Man, Two Guvnors' savors his moment at center stage.

May 17, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • British actor James Corden stars in the National Theater's "One Man, Two Guvnors."
British actor James Corden stars in the National Theater's "One… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — James Corden is in the throes of a New York moment. He's in a hit Broadway show, the London import "One Man, Two Guvnors," and though he's been down this road before with "The History Boys," a more high-minded British comedy that became a smash on the Great White Way, this time he's the star and all eyes are on this generously proportioned funnyman — a cherub posing as Puck, or is it the other way around?

Part of the secret of Corden's comic gift is that he combines innocence so naturally with mischief. Although he's 33, his face is that of an adolescent boy who has just discovered beer, Internet porn and some new flavor of potato chip.

Throughout Richard Bean's Benny Hill-ified treatment of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte masterwork "The Servant of Two Masters," Corden lets us see the glint of lust in Francis' eye as a piping hot plate of food or perfumed beauty passes his way. Like Oscar Wilde, the character can resist anything except temptation, and Corden seems more than happy to follow his every gluttonous whim.

His schedule crammed to the breaking point, Corden and I are riding in a hired car that's shuttling us from the CUNY-TV studio — where Corden, Bean and "One Man, Two Guvnors" director Nicholas Hytner had just sat down with Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins of "Theater Talk" — to the temporary New York home near Lincoln Center he shares with his girlfriend, Julia Carey, and 1-year-old son.

It's the same building in which I interviewed Richard Griffiths when he was starring in "The History Boys." Although Corden was in that production — he was the chubby boy, a designation that doesn't seem to bother him in the least — his accommodations weren't as luxurious. All that has changed now that it's his name perched above the title.

Recently crowned Broadway's new king of comedy, Corden can't stop yawning. He's rushing home so he can catch a little shut-eye before tonight's show, one of eight exhausting pratfall-filled performances he delivers each week. But he's nonetheless wired from all the fanfare for a performance that has some veteran theatergoers invoking comparisons to Zero Mostel and Bert Lahr.

"I'm from the smallest town outside London," he says. "This really shouldn't be happening to anyone from my town."

Mostly, however, he's relieved that the New York critics were as tickled by the show as their London counterparts. Not everyone was so sure that the humor would survive the transatlantic crossing. Britain and America, after all, are countries separated as much by a common language as by a common punch line.

"Before we came out here I said to friends of mine, 'We'll know within an hour whether we're staying for five months or we're going home.' Within an hour, I just thought, 'Oh, my God. This is, if anything, bigger. This is louder than it was at home.'"

The laughter in the house is certainly the most uproarious I've heard in the theater since Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were volleying Mel Brooks' shtick back and forth in "The Producers." There's one bit in which Corden wrestles (unsuccessfully) to pick up a giant trunk that, to go by the violent guffawing of grown men around me, seems more hernia-inducing for the audience than it is for Francis. Who knew respectable, well-heeled theatergoers of a certain age could be so riotous?

Corden has all the makings of a great clown. Everything about him is outsized, yet he's as light on his toes as any dancer. The conspiratorial smile that curves along his fleshy Everyman face extends an invitation for others to let their ids hang out along with his.

Perhaps the most striking feature of his comedy is that he never appears to be doing a routine. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he views the action from the heart and mind of his character. Gags, even the one that involves a wrestling match with himself, are humanized. And he handles the audience participation bits (how much of which are scripted is a question he won't answer) with all the cheeky self-assurance of a seasoned stand-up comic.

"I don't consider myself a comedian," he says matter of factly. "I consider myself an actor who presently is in a comedy. Comedy is clearly something I enjoy hugely, but by the same token, there are other things I feel I'm capable of and would like to do."

Corden has done quite a lot already, and though at the moment he can still walk the streets of New York without too much attention, in Britain he's a huge star, thanks largely to the BBC sitcom "Gavin & Stacey," which he co-wrote with fellow actor Ruth Jones, who, like him, had a key sidekick role. (The series ended in 2010, but Corden says that the cast may return for specials.)

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