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Physical Humor Makes A Comeback On Broadway

Oliver Chris, Tom Edden and James Corden in "One Man, Two Guvnors." (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Oliver Chris, Tom Edden and James Corden in "One Man, Two Guvnors." (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK — Physical humor is becoming a lost art in the theater. Most of our best living playwrights, for one thing, accentuate verbal dexterity –- Stoppard, Kushner, Albee. But the bigger reason can be traced to the rise of film and television over the last 80 years or so. If Michael Richards screwed up his pratfalls on “Seinfeld” he had infinite do-overs. Even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton didn’t have to get it right the first time. Add in digital tricks and physical humor on the stage can look unconvincingly wooden if it isn’t done by the best.

Fortunately, three terrific comedians are having a ball amputating their hands, smashing garbage cans in their faces and falling face first down a flight of stairs, all to the general hilarity of Broadway audiences for “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Music Box.

‘One Man, Two Guvnors’

Theater mavens among you might know the latter play by its original title, “The Servant of Two Masters,” by Carlo Goldoni, an 18th century master of commedia dell’arte, featuring first-class performers touring towns and villages in sketches and stories. England’s National Theatre is now doing something similar, even if you wouldn’t exactly call New York City the provinces.

But you needn’t study the past to appreciate any of Richard Bean’s adaptation — though since the hijinx are set in 1963 Britain, a grounding in the music of the English Invasion will bring additional smiles to your face. We’re in Brighton, to be precise, where a working-class bloke has signed on with two different masters who don’t know he’s double-dipping. As he mixes up his assignments from each and tries serving them both dinner in a local inn the farce just keeps on upping the ante.

Said servant is Francis Henshall, played by the delightful James Corden, who could make a fortune if his geniality could be bottled – though that geniality doesn’t mean you want him calling on you to help him lift a trunk or cook a soufflé. Embarrassing audience members is only a small part of Corden’s comedic repertoire, thankfully. (He was in the original production of “The History Boys.”) More memorable are his tuchus-over-teakettle spills, his laments over going without food for so long and his quick navigation of the foyer between the rooms of his two masters as he’s preparing food for them simultaneously.

His accomplice in criminal hilarity (one critic thought the person next to him was literally going to die laughing) is Tom Edden as the 87-year-old waiter Alfie, who looks like the late Bela Lugosi after a stroke. Rattling dishes from one room to another or falling down the aforementioned stairs, Edden could steal the show from almost anyone, but Corden makes sure that the focus stays on his antics.

Not that this is a two-man show – all the other British actors are accomplished straight men and women, many of whom sit in with the band. Ah, yes, the band – the Craze. Think the Searchers or Gerry and the Pacemakers. (And if you get that reference, think Medicare.) The four members have clearly watched their Ed Sullivan or Top of the Pops reruns and have the style and the sound of Skiffle down to a tee, with a little bit of Carl Perkins here and English music hall there. (Corden adds a bit of xylophone on the one number he can play on the instrument.)

The only problem with “One Man, Two Guvnors” is the first act is so good that the second act, featuring more verbal wit and the predetermined resolution, seems a little flat. I wish Nicholas Hytner, who did as majestic a job directing the National’s “Carousel” and who now runs the joint, had found a way of correcting the imbalance. Still, let’s hope that Hytner and friends, find a way to keep touring the American provinces. ArtsEmerson maybe?

‘Peter and the Starcatcher’

“Peter” is a different kettle of stagecraft, via the New York Theatre Workshop and various coproducers. Here the idea is to tell a story –- a “Peter Pan” prequel –- using minimalist set design and staging. A simple rope becomes a door or a staircase, a yellow dish glove a bird, a pair of red lights a crocodile. In that sense and others it’s the polar opposite of the “360” version that played in Boston’s City Hall Plaza last fall.

Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) adapted this first book of the Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson series in which we meet the characters who will become James M. Barrie’s icons. But the hook of the show is Hook, known here as Black Stache. Christian Borle (“Smash”) makes him every bit the center of attention as Cyril Ritchard’s in the old Mary Martin TV version. Borle prances about the stage like a combination of Groucho Marx and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the less weighty gay character in “Modern Family.”

Add in the agility of an athlete to superb comic timing. Like Corden he makes his own physical pain the stuff of gut-grabbing humor whether he’s sliding off a trunk or doing something else with that trunk you’ll have to see for yourself. Borle, too, is aided and abetted by a fine cast, particularly Celia Keenan-Bolger (the original “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) as Molly, the love interest.

The one exception, alas, is Adam Chanler-Berat as Boy, or you know whom. Roger Rees and Alex Timbers do an otherwise imaginative job of directing, but I don’t understand why contemporary directors have men portray Peter as if he had been kicked in the head by a horse. There have to be other ways of playing the part -– otherwise bring back Mary Martin.

Hook’s our man, though, so give him a hand. (Sorry.) His double takes are part of the attraction as when he preens, “What is it they call me, Smee?” and his aide replies, “Nancy, sir?” That and his malapropisms are typical of the silliness of the production, which isn’t as inspired as the silliness in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” either verbally or physically. And while it’s amusing and imaginative, I didn’t find it enchanting in the way great children’s art should be.

It is, though, a great place to start a young one out on the theater. Thanks to Borle, Corden and Edden, these two productions show that physical humor, when done by masters, adds an element to storytelling that has to be seen live to be fully appreciated.

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