He's only one man, holding down two jobs at the same time while helping himself to any edible particles that cross his path, a whirling dervish on a food-finding mission.
It has to be said that James Corden, XL in the girth and mirth departments but agile as all get-out, sometimes seems a visible blur bounding about the stage of the Music Box, which he took over April 18 in One Man, Two Guvnors.
br> His character, Francis Henshall, comes from good commedia dell'arte stock. He was known as Truffaldino in his initial incarnation, Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. That was 1743, in Venice; this is 1963, in Brighton.
Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre in London in general and helmsman of the enterprise in particular, more or less "ordered" an update of a farce he had played at age 17 in Manchester Grammar School, and adaptor Richard Bean delivered the goods with a giddy vengeance.
The "two guvnors" employing Francis — his literal meal-tickets whom he labors elaborately to keep apart, lest their funding abruptly stop or merge — are actually lovers-on-the-lamb trying to reunite. Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) has disguised herself as her evil-twin gangster brother who has been unceremoniously bumped off by her boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris).
Things pretty much come to a head when Rachel and Stanley settle into adjacent hotel suites, and Francis prepares dinner for them in the foyer, acting as a highly unofficial meal-taster, too. It's a feast for sore eyes, intensified by the determined shuffle-ons of an 87-year-old waiter, the ancient Alfie (Tom Edden), who is subjected to all sorts of indignities — from pratfalls to a pumped-up pacemaker. Off stage and out of his decrepit disguise, at the after-party held at the Liberty Theatre on West 42nd, Edden turned out to be 33. "I really didn't want to poke fun at old men because, if I'm lucky, I'll live to be an old, old man myself," he said.
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"What I did was, I looked at a lot of very old men — and just listened to my own body and thought, 'Okay, what is probably going to happen to my body? This bit will collapse. This bit'll sag to the side.' The only thing I'm quite jealous of is his hair. I've lost most of mine, and he has a beautiful head of hair. He's doing better than I'll do."
He's having a great time. "It is a real joy. I've always wanted to work at the National Theatre. That was a great ambition I fulfilled. I never dreamed this would take us to the West End, let alone Broadway. Broadway is just something you hear about — like Oz — so I'm grateful to all the people who made it happen."
Of course, he's the first to admit: no pain, no gain. "We finished in the West End at the end of February and had March off, so the bruises I acquired over the year faded and went away. Now, I notice they're back on the same parts of the body because I'm back in the show. If they were an inch in another direction, I wouldn't have noticed."
Director Hytner covered his back by hiring a "Physical Comedy Director" — Cal McCrystal. "Cal is a genius because he really knows what will get a big laugh," Edden trumpeted. "He'll say, 'If you do that, you'll get a big laugh.' It's a small alteration, and you think, 'Really?' because it doesn't sound like something that would contribute that much — but, sure enough, you do it, and it gets a big laugh.
"That's why I think that Nick is so brilliant — because he was able to see that the style of the piece needed someone who's a real specialist. He said, 'I need the best guy for physical comedy,' so those parts of the show Cal very much focused on, and Nick has an eye on everything. He's so meticulous so it's a good combination."
One Man, Two Guvnors Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Cast Party
Corden is 70 pounds lighter than he was during his 2006 Broadway semester as one of The History Boys. What's his secret exercise? "This play," he replied.
He's not kidding. The McCrystal aerobics on stage keep him in perpetual, body-draining motion — and, like another British transplant in the same fix (End of the Rainbow's Tracie Bennett), he's determined to do it eight times a week.
"I think you have to. I don't think it's particularly right not to — if you're going to put your name out front and then say, 'I won't be in it every day.' I think it's something you should do. Who's to turn up and do your job? It's only three hours every day."
Besides, Corden is confident that he won't be needing a fat suit to finish the run. "Not with a Shake Shack over the road," he noted. "No, I'm in trouble."
Right now, he has lost enough to suggest a young Sonny Tufts, but he has good reason for not wanting to slim to matinee-idol size: "Those are the boring parts."
The ingratiating personality he exhibits on stage is as audience-winning as it is exhausting. "Watching the audience is about the nicest thing in the world to do. Tonight was not the loudest audience we've had. They were louder last night, in fact. This whole thing — every night, from start to finish — is a joy for me."
The feeling is so mutual he effortlessly plucks participants from the audience. One of the ones he picked on opening night was an actor: Maxwell Zagorski, of the recently cancelled "One Life To Live." "I've never done any theatre," he admitted later — but he equipped himself quite well for a sudden Broadway debut.
According to Corden, the game plan for One Man, Two Guvnors is, "if the reviews are okay, we'll be here for five months. Then we'll go home, and I'll get married ten days after that." His fiancée and their year-old son are with him in New York.
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As the tall twit of the "two guvnors," co-star Chris exhibited a picture of pomposity worth puncturing. "Because the play is based on commedia dell'arte, all the characters are archetypes, but, instead of being Italian archetypes, they are now English archetypes," he pointed out. "I'm the archetype of the English public school, minor aristocrat, classist kind of snob. I love to be able to characterize that, but I love also to be able to show, inside all this arrogance and elitist attitude and his kind of sexual deviancy and insanity, there's a real beating heart inside the guy, and he's just deeply in love with his girlfriend. I think that's a lovely thing to have to act." His Playbill bio tips his hand: "Oliver is currently quite into the idea of becoming a massive movie star. He has also just won an award for doing acting. It's made of plastic." On April 15, he had a shot at the more substantial Olivier Award, but both he and Corden — the show's lone Olivier contenders — came away empty-handed.
Rooper, the other guvnor and the aforementioned girlfriend, managed to look girlishly attractive in male drag. "Oh, good!" she purred. "That's all I aim for."
She admitted to a bad case of opening-night nerves but much prefers the Broadway opening instead of the ones back home. "In London," she said, "opening night is when all of the press are in, and you know they're your enemy, but there's one chance. We don't have any control over it so tonight was just 'try and have fun.'"
Suzie Toase, playing the kind of busty hot-tart that Barbara Windsor made a specialty of in the old "Carry On" movie comedies, seconded that: "I just love the way we were looked after, and how magical the evening was. At the curtain call, I tried to be brave and sensible and not cry. I really tried very hard."
A dandy take-off of the overly theatrical actor was turned in by Daniel Rigby: "I started off with an Ian McKellen voice, but that was dropped. Basically, it's Olivier and classical theatre-actor voices. That's what the main spoof is. The stuff that I do is, basically, my own observations of the ludicrous physical theatre that I've seen in my life — basically, just sticking my chest out and doing it." And, in an evening of high-flying, free-wheeling farce, attention must be paid to Natalie Smith, an American new-hire in her Broadway bow, for bringing a grounded reality to the proceedings.
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Adapter Bean, who wrote England People Very Nice for a Hytner presentation at the National, was beaming by evening's end. "I have a good time every time I've seen it," he confessed. "I think I've seen it 67 times now, and I still enjoy myself — weirdly. Now, what happens next?" Answering his own question: "Next, I'm going to be doing The Count of Monte Cristo at the National Theatre for Christmas this year. It won't be a comedy, obviously. It'll be a romantic thriller. There won't be much music. They'll be people escaping from prison – spoonful by spoonful, if you remember."
First-nighters included Brian d'Arcy James, composer Justin Ellington, designer Michael Kors and husband Lance LePere, and Grant Olding, who composed the songs for One Man, Two Guvnors.
Director George C. Wolfe escorted his Caroline, or Change star, Tonya Pinkins, now rehearsing her third consecutive play Off-Broadway on West 42nd. Mandy Patinkin, looking like a dock worker in his beard and black toboggan, was accompanied by his regular accompanist, Paul Ford. New York magazine's Frank Rich and The New York Times' Alex Witchel took in their first Broadway opening in eons. Stand-up comic-turned-Broadway-actor Jim Gaffigan (via That Championship Season) brought the wife as well: Jeannie Noth.
Jason Butler Harner said he was two weeks' deep into rehearsing the new London import, Cock. "Please print it. Some places aren't printing it. I promise there is no nudity. It turns out to be the perfect name for the show, especially with this set they've created. There's no set. There's just a 13-foot diameter round space that's a cock fight and the actors attack each other and feel things, and you watch and arbitrate and judge and, hopefully, laugh your ass off."
Because Charles Busch dropped by to compliment Scott Elliott on The New Group's Burning recently, they've struck up a professional relationship. Now Elliott said he's cast Busch as the prison matron in a one-night-only (April 30) benefit reading of Tom Eyen's campy Women Behind Bars.
Also: playwright John Guare, whose Are You There, McPhee? world-premieres May 11 at Princeton's McCarter Theatre; Dee Hoty, Public-bound this fall in Michael John LaChiusa's musicalized Giant; Jayne Houdyshell, off to L.A. with Follies; Tom Riley and Vogue queenpin Anna Wintour.