Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway.
A comic actor breaking character, or corpsing, by dissolving into laughter generally isn't considered particularly professional. That's one of the reasons that Jimmy Fallon's SNL career, while successful, often isn't afforded much respect: he was notorious for giggling through half his skits. But a flat condemnation of corpsing doesn't work either because, in moderation at least, audiences tend to enjoy moments when the actors themselves start to laugh. Some of my favorite segments of The Daily Show, for example, have been when Jon Stewart is talking with one of the correspondents, and the satire is so absurd that both are clearly on the verge of cracking, and first one does and then the other, and then they pull it together only to break again. Laughter is infectious, and watching that infection spread can be hilarious.
But those moments still constitute a break of sorts—or we're taught to think that way—so I was surprised at first when James Corden, the Tony-winning lead of One Man, Two Guvnors, started breaking into unabashed, out-of-character fits of laughter. It was funny and endearing, but so different from what I had expected that I was a bit taken aback. Eventually, I realized that the performance was even stranger than I'd first thought, for some moments that look like corpsing eventually reveal themselves to be part of the performance; they don't represent a loss of control but rather complete control—which startled me even more.
One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Italian Servant of Two Masters, a famous work of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps this kind of toying with the fourth wall (to use a more contemporary turn of phrase) is an element of that genre. (I confess my knowledge of classic Italian theater is pretty shallow.) Regardless, it contributes to the oddly disorienting nature of One Man, which, in its fervent embrace of commedia dell'arte, manages to be both gleefully frivolous and unmistakably academic. It's a lot of fun and very, very funny, but I never could quite settle on what to make of eccentric duality.