Deconstructing the Custard Pie: Bill’s New, New, Old, Old Theater

So many people were doubled up with laughter at Bill Irwin’s latest feat of clowning at the Signature Theatre, they were in danger of spoiling my displeasure. They made me feel guilty for not laughing. Who wants to be the one in the audience with the invisible sign over their head: “MISERY”?

Not I (as that misery, Samuel Beckett, put it). The general idea is to have a good time with clowns, and usually I like nothing more. But you must never feel isolated by comedy. Laughter revels in the company it keeps. The wise theater saying goes, “We laugh together and grieve privately.” But what if the clowning leaves you feeling lonely?

The much-admired Mr. Irwin isn’t to blame. Well, not entirely. I found his 75-minute Harlequin Studies , the first show of his season at the Signature, too studious . His series of traditional commedia dell’arte sketches proved a rarefied enchantment zone-a schoolroom guide in muted good taste to such high-flown concepts as “Archetype and Individual.” But all I craved was the custard pie.

I thought at the time that why we laugh at certain things rather than others was an unsolvable mystery of the universe. After all, people suddenly burst out laughing at funerals. There they are, laying a loved one to rest, and they’re in uncontrollable fits of laughter! The tears roll just the same.

As I say, it makes no sense. And what makes you laugh needn’t tickle my fancy (and vice versa). Or, as the comic said whenever a routine was greeted with a tremendous round of indifference, “Suit yourselves!”

But I had higher hopes for Mr. Irwin’s second offering in the Signature series, a revival of his 20-year-old tour de force about the very nature of clowning and theater, The Regard of Flight , though it’s been blandly renamed, for some reason, The Regard Evening . The key word was flight . Mr. Irwin declares that he’s trying to flee the old and traditional in favor of “the new, new theater” (which includes “the new, new ventriloquism,” which looks like the old, old ventriloquism to me). And his clown also appears to be fleeing some mysterious thing -a threat, a death sentence.

The moment Mr. Irwin approaches the wings, weird, unseen forces try to drag him off, as if giving him the hook. He’s at his rubbery best-and funniest-when he’s scrambling desperately against the magnetic pull of gravity. Besides, he exists only onstage. Oblivion is found in the wings.

Yet he sleeps lightly . The opening image shows Mr. Irwin contentedly asleep in bed in his red-striped jammies. He seems to be floating in a surreal dreamland an inch or two above the bed. He shrinks in size wonderfully, too. In Act II, his now middle-aged self becomes this tiny, bent old clown-crone en route to dissolving like the Wicked Witch. Mr. Irwin’s miraculous physical dexterity is beyond question, of course. But who is he? A bewildered innocent won’t quite do it. He knows too much. Who is he playing?

My problem with Mr. Irwin is that he’s playing at being a clown. The Regard Evening once again has the feel of the classroom-of demonstrations made and lessons earnestly learned (and overintellectualized ideas easily debunked). It’s a livelier class than the solemn Harlequin Studies , but a Clown School even so, and one possessing its own brand of pretension.

The composer and pianist, Doug Skinner, thus acts as a kind of all-knowing director, teacher at the podium and stage hand. “Warning!” Mr. Skinner announces, for example. “Costume change!” The stage hand’s unseen, scary instructions-“Stand by!”-are a device long since used by the French Absurdists. But as Mr. Irwin changes into a clown’s costume displayed like a totem, Mr. Skinner will then inform us drolly that they are “demystifying the theater process” or making “a formalist construct” of the “postmodern.”

Intended to satirize the jargon of drama schools, it only strikes me as smug-an easy joke at the expense of obvious artiness that’s already been told many, many times before. In his youth, Mr. Irwin studied with the theater theorist and intellectual Herbert Blau. “Bill,” observes Mr. Skinner during Mr. Irwin’s really unfunny send-up of an actor trying to perform a Shakespeare parody, “I’m not following your choices at all …. “

Who is? But it’s enough, apparently, for Mr. Irwin to hit a facile populist note to bring down the house. His other longtime collaborator, Michael O’Connor, functions as some kind of arch critic or conscience. “Warning!” you might think. “Another dated idea …. “

“Are you a voice in my head?” Mr. Irwin balefully asks his conscience-critic within. Deep down, you see, he’s a neurotic clown. He worries . He doesn’t touch us, as clowns must. He’s being dragged away by unseen forces, he hates drama schools, he’s very busy being intellectual about not being intellectual, and now he’s hearing voices. His onstage toilet is also perilously out of reach, and I haven’t been feeling too great myself lately. But, at best, it’s all too precious for me, too “knowing,” too “human.”

It’s not what I’m used to. All clowns are acts of nostalgia, except to the child. They are our childhood memories rekindled. Thomas Mann, no less, described clowns in Confessions of Felix Krull as “basically alien beings … side-splitting, world-renouncing monks of unreason, cavorting hybrids, part human, part insane art.” For me, the clowns of my childhood were precisely that- not really human . They were exotic, mysterious and mad. They smelled of sawdust and seemed to come from another planet, like aliens. They were a source of wonder .

I saw a fabulous clown recently at Circus Oz , the lunatic Australian traveling circus at the New Victory Theater. The show opened with the entry of the veteran clown, Tim Coldwell, who came on walking upside-down on the roof of the stage to the music of “Send in the Clowns.” He astonished me! He was walking upside down about 40 feet in the air. I realize he did it with magnetic boots, but still- you try it! He sat at a table stuck to the ceiling and had a little whisky from a glass. Then he sort of walked upside down into his floppy clown jacket and zoomed perilously down a pole head first to the stage-or earth.

When I was 6 or 7, the best of all the clowns were Charlie Cairoli and Paul, and I saw them every year when the circus came to town. Charlie was the adored red-nose clown in baggy pants. He was all custard pies and buckets of water. Paul was the white-face clown, always immaculate in his dazzling Pierrot costume in the dust and dirt of the circus ring. But the funnier the outrageous Charlie became, the sadder Paul was. I could never understand it. In the midst of Charlie’s chaos, Paul played a saxophone, and the sound he made was like a wail of grief. I remember asking my parents, “Why is Paul so sad when Charlie is so happy?” But they never told me.

Mr. Irwin’s ironic “new, new theater” doesn’t take me-or him-forward into the future. In fact, he’s sentimental about the past and the noble heritage of clowns. But it isn’t his fault in this regard: He can’t return me to the innocence of childhood where “art” doesn’t exist, or where comedy and tragedy once lived unknown to me in foreboding partnership.