Is it already a year since I wrote that Eddie Izzard is the funniest man on earth and possibly elsewhere? It is, and Mr. Izzard still is. It’s a delight to have him back with us at Performance Space 122, though word is out, and his short run is already almost a sellout.
What is it about him that has us convulsed with sustained laughter about such amazing things as homeopathic lawnmowers and the siege of Troy? He has no political or social agenda. This British comic (who’s a star in England) doesn’t belong to the coarse Comedy Store school of wiseacres and vulgarians. Nor is he a Symbol of Our Times, like smug Jerry Seinfeld. His eccentric choice of material rises above mere topicality. He’s an un-American activity in many ways, yet Americans love him. He doesn’t tell jokes, exactly. He appears in semi-drag, suggesting the feminine, but he isn’t a drag artist. Who, or what, is he?
The late John Osborne (of Look Back in Anger ) defined the great vaudevillians he worshiped as members of an elite warrior class. Laurence Olivier famously played Osborne’s failed comic, Archie Rice, in Osborne’s The Entertainer . It was said that Olivier had gone downmarket by playing the seedy working comic instead of his more customary kings and heroes. But, in truth, he was playing a hero-the warrior-comedian whose parting, defiant words in The Entertainer are actually inscribed on Osborne’s tombstone:
“Let me know where you’re working tomorrow night, and I’ll come and see you .”
They’re the unforgettable words and challenge of the Always Judged. And the warrior-comedian is judged more than anyone, night after night, at the mercy of hecklers and drunks and know-it-alls, standing or falling alone. Eddie Izzard-the name itself is unusual, jaunty, suggesting wizardry-doesn’t, at first sight, appear to be a natural warrior, what with the rust-colored satin outfit, the red nail polish, the discreet jewelry and the four-inch stacked heels.
Well, it suits him! He looks like a doll. He’s an unthreatening presence. He possesses such a pleasant stage personality that he creates an immediate rapport with the audience. At the same time, he’s secretly artful. He doesn’t quite “belong.” He might be a friendly alien. He’s really wearing a costume-as traditional and as pretty as a white-faced clown’s.
Eddie Izzard, the wizard, is the direct contemporary link to the fabled music hall whose greatest artists in England have never been, strictly speaking, normal. John Osborne’s favorite musical hall genius was the risqué Max Miller, who wore a satin coat of many colors, like Joseph. My favorite, worshipped since childhood, was Max Wall, who wore black baggy tights and a leering look on his face like a demented professor. The manic explosiveness of John Cleese owes a debt to Max Wall. Eddie Izzard owes a small debt to Monty Python.
He’s a surrealist storyteller. He builds mad stage pictures of Noah’s Ark and Sean Connery, like a comic Magritte. He makes the mundane world oddly interesting, and the surreal normal. He anthropomorphises the strange phobias of pilot fish, the unconscious life of birds who dream of walking, and the terror of blades of grass about to be cut (“Keep your heads down, lads!”). He enjoys the disconnected Pythonesque silly, and so do we.
He doesn’t do segues, but there is no need. In a show that seems to be brilliantly invented on the spot, he proceeds as if he’s just popped in for a cozy chat about anything that comes to mind. You therefore can’t anticipate him. He might jump-cut from elderly ladies who tell us their age-”I’m 82! I’m 82!”-to the Grim Reaper who modernizes by turning in his scythe for a power mower.
Mr. Izzard is an original, all right. Which other comedian could we even imagine creating a picture of an Achilles who actually has an Achilles’ heel? His latest show at P.S. 122, aptly entitled Glorious , is another of his semi-discreet test runs. He seems concerned for some reason that his English humor might not travel. In which case, he’s the most relaxed concerned comic we know. His glorious comedy isn’t specifically English, except, possibly, when performing Shakespeare in a Birmingham accent. He’s an accomplished mime, and as universal as one. Called back for an encore, he returned with his signature impersonation of a bird flying in a plane who’s seen by astonished, jealous birds outside …
I’m happy to say that I wish Eddie Izzard’s 90-minute tour de force had gone on longer. On the other hand, I regret that I couldn’t have been more relieved when Christopher Kyle’s new saga about aging, foolish yuppies, Plunge , drifted to its sorry end.
In the first place, I’ve no wish to see yet another play that takes place in the Paramount hotel. I’ve never got to know a hotel so intimately without staying there. Much of Douglas Carter Beane’s satire of success, As Bees in Honey Drown , is set in the Paramount lobby, where comfort is considered unstylish. Various dire scenes in Plunge -”coming here with a married man, this is totally not me”-are set in a cramped bedroom of the Paramount where minimalist cells with one flower are considered chic.
Plunge is totally not me, and it will be totally not you, too-unless the lifeless, plotless, domestic little dramas of deeply uninteresting, adolescent 30-year-old baby boomers are to your taste. I doubt that very much. Mr. Kyle, the author of The Monogamist , left me in a sour mood, as perhaps you can tell. Or, as one of his vacant thirtysomething characters puts it: “You are so not amusing me right now.”
Everything in this lame, inconsequential piece reminds us of something else-a bad movie, an episode of Friends , the yuppie oeuvre of Richard Greenberg. Apart from the Paramount, Plunge also takes place during yet another Labor Day weekend house party in a restored farmhouse in Connecticut. It’s old hat dressed up in Generation X clothes. Val, a sullen environmentalist who’s taken a job in the Con Edison legal department, confesses-shock!-she’s become a lesbian. Her Harvard-educated husband, Harris, who’s stupid, is upset. Superficial Clare, the hostess and vice president of her father’s investment bank, slept with Harris, but nothing happened. Now she’s sleeping with Jim, the office temp and free spirit who falls inappropriately in love with her. Clare is also about to sleep with her old college buddy, cynical Matty, who might be gay and is training to be a priest in order to inherit a fortune from his mom, and …
Plunge is one of 14 plays commissioned from Playwrights Horizons by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin-Dreamworks. It’s everything that’s wrong with movies.