Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 21, 2003

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York review: `Joe Egg’

For some inexplicable reason I didn’t see Peter

Nichols’

"A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" when it opened on Broadway

in 1968. And wouldn’t you know, this very dark comedy turned out to

be one of the most lauded and provocative plays of the decade. That

I could have missed a drama featuring Albert Finney also remains a

mystery. I did get to see a fine revival by the Roundabout Theater

in 1985 that starred Jim Dale and Stockard Channing, an incomparable

pairing that knocked my socks off.

This is the play in which Sheila, a loving wife and mother refers

to her brain damaged 12-year-old girl (nick-named "Joe Egg"),

as "a living parsnip," and Bri, her discomforted husband,

chides the audience with his macabre vaudeville-styled outpourings.

They go to extremes inventing reactions and responses from this child

even though nothing except her physical spasms are ever witnessed

or heard. Ever doting on her animals, plants, fish, and her husband,

Sheila finds an outlet as a gushing Florence Nightingale. Believing

that "everybody is crippled in some way," she fortresses

herself

behind platitudes like "where there’s life…"

Considerably weaker and self pitying is Bri, a school teacher with

a flair for seeing his life as a mordant joke. Bri conducts funny

yet heart-breaking one-way conversations with "Joe." When

he isn’t retreating behind a facade of clownish childishness, these

are funny. Living the last vestiges of love for one another, the

couple

creates their own black-humored reality. This as their marriage and

relationship becomes more of test for them to endure.

Now the Roundabout is giving us another go-round with

this astonishing play. And despite its potentially weepy premise,

it is filled with wit, irony, and unsentimental compassion. It is

given additional validation by designer Es Devlin’s setting, a

nondescript

but plant-smothered flat.

The play’s seemingly morbid center serves brightly as a torch that

sets fire to the couple’s feelings. Nichol’s trick is to express the

poignancy and humanity of a difficult subject from an uncompromisingly

satirical point of view. Curiously, as played by Eddie Izzard and

Victoria Hamilton, the couple seem less motivated by the text’s

brilliance

than by their own extremely mannered performances.

Eddie Izzard, a Britisher who made his mark on the West End as a

standup

cross-dressing comic in his one-man shows, and who found a following

here in the U.S. with his Emmy Award-winning HBO show "Dressed

to Kill," brings a showman-like versatility to the stage. But

is that enough to fulfill the needs of this complex character, one

whose superficial irreverence must be matched by giving us a sense

of his tortured interior life? There might be more than meets the

ears in Izzard’s more standup than standout performance if his speech

(by that I mean his dialect) was a bit clearer and stronger.

Although Victoria Hamilton is also hard to understand at times, she

effectively channels Sheila’s innate and instinctual tenderness

through

her selfless caring. And even more so when she speaks directly to

us in a poignantly optimistic soliloquy.

In the second act, the action includes the invasive but inviting

dynamics

of Bri’s friend Freddie (played with overbearing countenance by

Michael

Gaston), his decorous wife (an amusingly posturing Margaret Colin),

and his scatterbrained mother (Dana Ivey at her distracted best).

Laurence Boswell’s direction of a production that originated in

London’s

West End does well enough keeping the unnerving and funny aspects

of the story in focus. But merely well enough may not really be doing

this extraordinary, almost three-hour-long play the justice it

deserves.

HH

— Simon Saltzman

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Roundabout Theater at the

American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, New York,

212-719-1300.

$40 to $65.


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