Billy Connolly’s in Town: Big Yin Says ‘No Water’

A few words about the wonderfully vulgar Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, sometimes known as “The Big Yin” or “The World’s Only Violent Hippie”:

What I love most about him is that he’s the only comic I’ve seen in my life who laughs uproariously at his own jokes. “Jokes” isn’t quite right. His accounts of dealing, for example, with a deadly Australian octopus, or falling down a manhole when you’re feeling great, are more in the nature of short stories manically told.

In fact, he almost never tells a joke. But he laughs at his own stories as if—like us—he’s just heard them! He might be telling us about how drinking whiskey makes you bilingual, and suddenly he’s doubled up with laughter! “Sorry,” he sometimes offers apologetically in his broad Scots brogue. But what might turn us off actually becomes infectious—making us laugh only more.

This former welder’s apprentice in the shipyards of Glasgow has said that he wanted to become a comedian who was essentially no different from the natural-born comics he heard telling stories in pubs. That’s his secret: He appears to be the man in the street. And the pub regulars he admired always have a good laugh at their own stories too!

It also keeps him rooted. Though Mr. Connolly is a friend of royalty and lives on a grand estate in Aberdeenshire—and even does serious film acting opposite Dame Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown—he remains a folk hero in Britain, in the way that the working-class vaudevillians of another era parked their Rolls-Royces outside the stage door and were still worshipped by the people.

A number of Glaswegians were in the New York audience at the performance I saw—following him like groupies or, more likely, for a reminder of home. Mr. Connolly can fill the vast Royal Albert Hall in London, yet here he is like a bemused alien who’s landed in the wrong place, performing his “Too Old to Die Young” tour at the 499-seat theatre known as 37 Arts (on West 37th Street near 10th Avenue). Little known by Americans, he’s playing it small, not safe.

In his apparently spontaneous riffs and lightning digressions, his unlikely offspring is Eddie Izzard. Mr. Connolly wouldn’t be caught dead in lipstick and a frock, but the two warriors in solo comic danger share a similar pleasure in the weirdly surreal. Mr. Connolly’s honest vulgarity belongs more to him via Glaswegian street talk. He was, in fact, the first rock ’n’ roll stand-up comic in Britain, in the same way, perhaps, that the high Robin Williams was the first of his kind in the U.S. With Mr. Connolly, it was mostly drink—“A pint of wine, please!”—and the first time I saw him perform in London many years ago, he was close to drunk off his skull.

This is the miraculous thing, though: Now in his 60’s, he’s been dry for a long dutiful time, yet the energy and pace of his two-hour tour de force remain undiminished. He’s drunk on comedy, for sure. There’s a strong sense that he doesn’t want to let us go—least of all to the bathroom.

It was one of the oddest things I’ve seen in a theater. But during the second half of the intermissionless show, an awful lot of people seemed to be getting up to go to the bathroom. “What’s the matter with everyone?” Mr. Connolly inquired at last, as someone else left his seat for a leak, hunched over so as not to be seen from the stage.

“Is it the water?” he went on. “Why does everyone drink so much water in America? It’s not going to make you handsome.”

But he wasn’t quite done. “Piss at home before you go out!” he shouted, as we all laughed. “I always do.”

Oliver! Oliver!

Roger Falls’s production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City for the Manhattan Theatre Club is an example of a less-than-good play redeemed by smashing performances from its excellent cast. Give the actor enough kindling wood, goes the theater expression, and the actor will do the rest.

Perhaps I might have been more open to Mr. McPherson’s play about urban loneliness and the ghosts of the past if I hadn’t seen Brian Friel’s magnificent Faith Healer first. For myself, the two Irish storytellers do not compare well, and Mr. McPherson’s familiar themes are too much on automatic here.

In a slender, undemanding evening mistakenly compared by some to Harold Pinter, the playwright gives us a little bit of everything: ghoulies, a ghost story and God, a lapsed priest turned shrink, a marital showdown and clanging confession, a tale of a brothel, furtive gay desire as proof of desperation in the night, and even a little bit of House of Horrors.

This is Oliver Platt’s Broadway debut, however, and I was glad to be there to witness it. Mr. Platt is a brilliant stage natural. He pads onstage as the jowly, middle-aged widower in search of therapy with unseeing eyes, treading warily as if walking on quicksand, and everything he says and does is riveting.

Best known for his TV work and for shining in Hollywood clunkers, I first came across Mr. Platt’s genius in an odd and terrific cult movie, Funny Bones, in which he played a failed comedian who’s the son of a famous comedian (played by Jerry Lewis). To see Mr. Platt in the opening scenes sweatily dying the death before a silent audience in Las Vegas is to understand the nature of both embarrassment and pity.

He’s just as brilliant in Shining City, playing opposite Brian F. O’Byrne’s recessive and meek amateur therapist. Mr. O’Byrne, who was so fine as the priest in Doubt and the child-killer in Frozen, has reticently less to do here, but he does it excellently. He listens like a priest turned shrink: in one ear and out the other. It was good to see one of my favorite actresses, Martha Plimpton, given a role to match her talent. As the therapist’s unhappy girlfriend she is exactly right, including her authentic accent. Peter Scanavino makes up the quartet of actors with a first-rate—and touching—cameo as a rent boy. The actors—not the play—are the thing!

Tony Time

And now a personal, totally unbiased message:

ATTENTION, TONY VOTERS! Vote, vote, vote for The Drowsy Chaperone. You know it makes sense.