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'One Man, Two Guvnors' is pure slapstick

There are two directors -- one just for physical comedy -- in "One Man, Two Guvnors," the farce that arrived from London's irreproachable National Theatre with virtuosic clowning by James Corden and another lesson for us Yanks about the two kinds of British humor.

There's the squeaky dry, silly-smart kind we know from Monty Python, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard. I love that kind. Then there is the slapstick, pants-dropping, music-hall, silly-dumb sort that traces its stock-character, low-comedy pedigree back to 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte, English pantomime and, clearly, Laurel (Brit) and Hardy (American).

In this, I'm afraid you're on your own. "One Man, Two Guvnors" obviously does what it does deliriously well. More than many trustworthy Londoners declared this among the funniest evenings they've ever had in the theater. On the other hand, there are few experiences lonelier than sitting with a poker face in a hall of laughter.

Corden, beloved back home on TV and stage, plays Francis, a hapless round fellow with twinkly porcine eyes, clashing brown plaids and the ability to somersault backward on a parlor chair while catching a nut in his mouth. Always hungry, he somehow finds himself with two bosses (guvnors), an educated one (the amusingly snooty Oliver Chris) who may have murdered a gangster and one who may be a gangster (Jemima Rooper). Based loosely on "The Servant of Two Masters," the 1746 commedia by Carlo Goldoni, the plot has been moved to seaside 1963 Brighton, where playwright Richard Bean drains the gold from Goldoni.

As Corden explains during one of his frequent asides to (and friendly assaults on) the audience, his character really serves as the classic greedy, cunning clown, Harlequin. Nicholas Hytner, the National leader who directed Corden here in the very different "History Boys," clearly has a fine old time in this throwback. Mark Thompson's lovely-dowdy cardboard sets change behind the curtain while a four-member band, dressed like early Beatles, plays rockabilly skiffle.

Apparent humor comes from a lawyer named Harry Dangle who talks veryveryvery fast. A pathetic old waiter (the amazingly bounceable Tom Edden) gets smashed by doors and falls down stairs. A vain young actor (the charming Daniel Rigby) preens. The stupid ingenue acts dumb, the bimbo bookkeeper is smart, the mention of Australia is supposed to be a joke and many, many crotches get grabbed. Consider yourself warned.


WHAT "One Man, Two Guvnors"

WHERE Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.

INFO $66.50-$126.50; 212-239-6200; oneman

BOTTOM LINE Virtuosic fun for low-comedy addicts only

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