By Lucy Komisar
Old time clowns are modern again. At least when they are as sophisticated and clever as Bill Irwin and David Shiner. There‘s a lot about “Old Hats” that seems pretty new. The techno projections, for example. Top-hatted Irwin and Shiner appear confused as they wander in a tunnel, smoke swirling around them. We see it on video. It‘s telling us that technology will be a theme of their very witty performance– sometimes technology gone wrong. Or misunderstood.
The band enters late, and singer Nellie McKay complains loudly as she marches up to the piano that she didn’t know New York metro cards expired! We soon see Irwin and Shiner dueling with remotes, then a real duel with the remotes‘ antennas.
In case anyone wondered if these terrific clowns are still as good, stop worrying. They are non pareil. (There‘s nobody like them.) They still display the body jokes, the loose physical movements and juggler style tricks that they are known for. And McKay adds a great jazzy 40s style music.
But the skits are not just physical, they are social and political, all staged with finesse by director Tina Landau.
One of my favorites is the presidential debate, with candidates displaying their fake toothy smiles at podiums. In a riff on immediate feedback, the “winner” after each question is marked by competing red arrows. But the two wield dirty trick remotes that move the arrows to fake audiences responses.
There‘s faux patriotic rivalry. A flag is topped by a puppet eagle which descends to discover suspicious stacks of cash inside the opponent‘s podium. That challenger swoops into the first fellow‘s podium to reveal BVDs printed with a Soviet hammer and sickle.
That‘s not all. At the cry of an infant in the audience, both race to find and kiss it. Isn‘t it great how our political system never ceases to provide fodder for practitioners of absurdity?
In a classic tale of the sad hobo, Shiner sits on a park bench pulling detritus out of a garbage can. He finds a red rose and kisses it; the flower wilts. He yanks out a teddy bear, and the doll‘s head jerks back. Then there‘s a dead cat.
Nothing goes right. When the hobo calls 911, a voice says, “What is your emergency?” But he can‘t speak, so the operator hangs up.
When it starts to rain, a figure the hobo made from a bottle and old sheet becomes a person, a woman, who wipes his eyes and caresses him. Sad and sweet and charming.
A brilliant encounter occurs at a train station where the two, in pin stripes and clown shoes, shrink and grow from inside their over-sized suits as each takes the other down psychologically, which turns into physically. It‘s the funniest argument I‘ve ever seen.
Nellie McKay riffs in a laid-back fashion between numbers with a piano or guitar, sometimes with a jazz inflection. My favorite was her famous Mother of Pearl, in which she insists that, “Feminists don‘t have a sense of humor.”
She explains that, “They say child molestation isn’t funny. Rape and degradation’s just a crime (lighten up, ladies). Rampant prostitution, sex for money (what’s wrong with that). Can’t these chicks do anything but whine? Dance break. Woo-hoo….. I‘m Michelle Bachman and I approve this message.”
Sounds dark, but she does it with such a dazed lackadaisical demeanor, that it takes a while for the meaning to kick in.
The pi¨ce de résistance is the “filming” of a cowboy movie in which Shiner collects four audience members (worry if you‘re in a front row or aisle seat and in your 20s or 30s) and has them act out a movie with guns shots, hard drinking, throwing glasses that shatter, and lots of retakes.
(Later, one of the purloined performers who did a very acrobatic stylized death dance told me he “used to be” an actor. I‘m still suspicious, but it was a kick nonetheless.
Irwin and Shiner , who are basically mimes (they make a big thing of that), are persuaded to join McKay in some vaudeville routines with tap and song. So these guys can talk! They do a wonderful skit imitating the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Wizard of Oz.
There‘s a lot more, including a great jazzy New Orleans gospel. They may be old hat, but this production is very delightfully new!
“Old Hats.” Created and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner; directed by Tina Landau. Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212-244-7529. Opened March 4, 2013; closes June 9, 2013. 5/1/13.