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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
"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
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
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
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
than by their own extremely mannered performances.
Eddie Izzard, a Britisher who made his mark on the West End as a
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
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
of Bri’s friend Freddie (played with overbearing countenance by
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
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
— Simon Saltzman
American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, New York,
$40 to $65.
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