It's not that far from comedy to tragedy, a distance traveled with remarkable skill in a shattering production of British playwright Peter Nichols' "Joe Egg," which the Roundabout Theatre Company has now thoughtfully revived in New York for a second time in nearly two decades.
In this new revival, the leads are Eddie lzzard and Victoria Hamilton playing Bri and Sheila, the embattled parents of a severely handicapped daughter. And the two actors, who starred in a London production last season, are revelations.
Izzard, best known as a stand-up comedian, perfectly inhabits the slouchy, wiseacre Bri, a quipster whose pain is hidden behind his comic punch lines; Hamilton's sweet-tempered Sheila is heartbreaking, a woman who never quite gives up hope even when things are the bleakest.
The full title of Nichols' play is "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg." "Joe Egg" is the nickname given by the parents to their child, a brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound young girl unable to respond to the world around her - a vegetable given to spastic fits.
To cope with this situation, Bri and Sheila play games. So does the playwright. Nichols' comedy-drama - or is it a drama-comedy? - indulges in freewheeling theatrics to brilliant effect. It often breaks the fourth wall, with the actors stepping out of the hideously and hilariously accurate re-creation of a late 1960s living room designed by Es Devlin to address the audience.
In those moments, there's an almost vaudeville quality to tile parents' depiction of their desperate attempts to come to terms with Joe Egg's existence, starting from her difficult birth. They demonstrate how they dealt with obtuse doctors, ineffectual clergy and with their own increasing fears that their child would never be normal.
The rapport between Izzard and Hamilton is positively symbiotic. One can't imagine them playing as well off of other actors. Whether they are fighting with each other or making fun of their fragile situation, the two performers have an innate camaraderie that is touching.
Director Laurence Boswell, who also supervised the recent London revival, has done even better work here. It's a long play, two full acts, but the pace never lags.
Boswell also has assembled a terrific supporting cast, starting with young Madeleine Martin, who gives a terrifyingly realistic portrayal of the title character.
Act 2 becomes more traditional with Bri and Sheila confronting not only his disapproving mother (played to nagging perfection by Dana Ivey) but two friends, a husband and wife played by Michael Gaston and Margaret Colin. The husband, an old classmate of Bri's, is patronizingly helpful. The wife is haughtily disdainful as they offer their opinions on what to do with poor Joe Egg.
Nichols' play, first seen in London in 1967 and on Broadway the following year, is largely autobiographical. There's a lacerating directness to its tale, particularly in Nichols' refusal to sentimentalize a story that could be overwhelmed by emotion.
Yet refusing to do so makes "Joe Egg" doubly rewarding.
That first Roundabout revival, which starred Jim Dale and Stockard Channing and which eventually made its way to Broadway, won a Tony Award for best revival in 1985. Judging from what Izzard, Hamilton and company have put on stage, this new edition stands a pretty good chance of repeating that success.
When Peter Nichols’ "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" first appeared on Broadway in 1988, it seemed fairly outrageous.
Here was a play about the desperate parents of a spastic child. Nothing about Nichols' treatment of the situation, however, smacked of the piety that would then have been standard. Even the title was something of a shock, with its irreverent use of the word "death:" '
The parents, Bri and Sheila, make jokes about their 10-year-old daughter, whom they call Joe Egg. (Even the nickname seems cruel - not only does it turn her into a joke, it desexualizes her.)
They talk to her as you would an infant or a pet, and their efforts at communication become more coy, more painful because Joe Egg gives nothing back. Worse, she goes into uncontrollable spasms, an inadvertent rebuke to her parents' efforts at coziness. The father even carries her out into the cold, hoping it will kill her.
On lop of the callousness of the plot, what must have seemed novel 35 years ago was the wholesale ignoring of convention.
In those days, it was not common for actors to address the audience in long monologues or comment on the plot, as Nichols' characters do. Mind you, Nichols was hardly a groundbreaker. Bri, the disgruntled father, is a descendant of the Angry Young Men who littered the London stage starting in the mid-'50s
Even the humor in Nichols' play had its antecedents. Joe Orton, a far more outrageous playwright, was then in full swing,
Whatever aura of "pushing the envelope" the play had 35 years ago has been lost because even television does all this on a regular basis.
The Roundabout has mounted a solid revival of "Joe Egg" that only reinforces one's sense of how dated the play is. The revival stars British comic Eddie Izzard, who appeared in a recent production of the play in London.
Izzard plays Bri, the hapless father of Joe Egg. He has a bright, cheery manner that suggests the English music hall, which provides a sardonic counterpoint to the dark situation he faces. Obviously, he gets all the humor in Nichols' writing.
What he does not convey is a through line, a sense of the underlying pain of the character. His flip attitude does not seem an attempt to cover up something he can't cope with. It just seems who he is.
By contrast, Victoria Hamilton gives an utterly beguiling performance as his equally long-suffering wife. Her attempts at levity always convey the emotions she is trying to quell.
Margaret Colin and Michael Gaston are excellent as a meddling couple, and Dana Ivey is wonderfully grating as Bri's insufferable mother, though all these characters seem stereotyped.
The physical production conveys a suburban bohemianism wittily. But "Joe Egg," which once seemed iconoclastic, now seems very much a period piece.
Calling "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" a black comedy is not the half of it.
Peter Nichols' ironic play about a marriage and its breakup, revived last night by the Roundabout Theater Company, is corrosively hilarious and bitterly sad - in just about equal measure.
Bri (Eddie Izzard) and Sheila (Victoria Hamilton) seem a pretty normal married couple - except for one thing.
They have an extraordinarily abnormal child, a child who - in the words of one German-accented pediatrician - is "a wegtable."
No laughing matter? Perhaps not, but it is the kind of situation where perhaps you have to either laugh insanely or go quietly mad.
Bri, a schoolteacher and would-be artist, handles it with angry mockery, parody and self-loathing humor.
Sheila, on the other hand, is a kind of earth-mother figure - even houseplants grow with tropical zest under her watchful eye - and she loves without reservation the spastic 10-year-old Josephine (Madeleine Martin), whom the couple have nicknamed Joe Egg.
For Bri's sake, though, Sheila's prepared to enter into his strange games and dialogues - if that's what he needs to get by.
But as the play unfolds, it becomes apparent that the growing rift in their marriage isn't caused by the child, but by the way the child has become the family's focus.
For Bri is a spoiled mother's-boy, and his real difficulty with the child is the attention she steals from himself.
In 1967, first in London's West End and a year later on Broadway, "Joe Egg" was Nichols' first success. It shocked the theater world into attention. Yet it was still a first play, and its faults and immaturities haven't lessened over the past 35 years.
The originality of the piece - it is partly autobiographical, for Nichols and his wife also had a spastic child - was partly in its theme, and partly in using both British vaudeville technique and tone with the (then) modernist theater concept of addressing the audience directly.
It worked well - particularly in the first act, a series of almost knockabout routine vignettes between Bri and Sheila.
In the second act, when Nichols brings in other characters, including Bri's doting, smothering, awful mother, and starts seriously (and satirically) discussing things like life, death and euthanasia, the structure crumbles.
The low-key ending, however realistic, is oddly anticlimatic.
In the original production, many of these flaws were papered over by Michael Blakemore's extraordinarily cohesive staging. The 1985 New York revival, also for Roundabout, was totally dominated by virtuoso performances by Jim Dale and Stockard Channing.
This time around, the play is standing on its own. Its British director, Laurence Boswell, lets the second act get away from him, partly because only one - Margaret Colin, as the haughty wife of the couple's friend - seems to understand the play. Poor Dana Ivey, as Bri's mother, can't even muster a convincing English accent.
But Hamilton is marvelous and Izzard - known best for his work as a cultishly adored comedian who usually dresses in drag - is extraordinary.
He pulls compulsive laughter out of pain like a funny hat from one of those English Christmas crackers.
I suspect that he is almost exactly the spoiled and charming Bri the playwright envisaged when he first slipped the paper into his typewriter.
As partners in the vaudeville act known as marriage, Bri and Sheila have performed this routine dozens, maybe hundreds of times before -- the one where she pretends she's the switchboard operator and he's the Viennese doctor. Yet as portrayed by Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton in the Roundabout Theater Company's sensational new revival of Peter Nichols's ''Day in the Death of Joe Egg,'' neither husband nor wife seems remotely staled by familiarity.
''Universal Shafting,'' says Sheila, pretending to answer a phone call. Bri looks startled. He hasn't heard that one, and it throws him off his stride. ''You never put that in before,'' he says, smiling but accusing. Sheila beams happily. ''Thought I would this time,'' she says, so pleased with herself that she can't stop giggling.
Bri reconsiders the fictitious company's name, Universal Shafting, and throws a dart of his own. ''Story of your life,'' he says to Sheila, and the joy drains from her face. Unlike many comedians who have long been linked, whether professionally or matrimonially, Bri and Sheila still have the capacity to surprise each other. And to crack each other up. And to wound each other in ways no one else possibly could.
When I first saw Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton perform this scene, more than a year ago in London, I was convinced that they had improvised at least part of it, but when I checked the script, it was all according to the text. And when I recently saw them enact the same lines at the American Airlines Theater in New York, where ''A Day in the Death of Joe Egg'' opened last night, I again thought for one disorienting moment that they were inventing the words on the spot.
That's the kind of freshness that comes only when a performer's affinity with a role is like a blood tie. And that's what Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton, directed by Laurence Boswell, bring to their interpretations of Mr. Nichols's play about the parents of a severely disabled child who use jokes to bandage wounds and to stop up the holes in a sinking marriage. They're a truly, spontaneously funny couple -- so funny that they break your heart.
Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, the stars of the music-hall-style entertainment called ''The Play What I Wrote,'' are undeniably a virtuosic pair. But for deeply synchronized teamwork, it seems unlikely that anyone this season is going to top Mr. Izzard, previously best known as a standup artist in women's clothing, and Ms. Hamilton, making her New York debut.
Working their way through the sharp thrusts and parries of Mr. Nichols's script from 1967 -- and through monologues in which you still feel each is inhabiting the other's mind -- they're like Astaire and Rogers skating through a perilously waxed ballroom. The big difference is that while Fred and Ginger were figures of romantic perfection, wafted on breezes of love, Bri and Sheila are dancing from desperation.
''We're all damaged -- aren't we? -- in some way,'' Ms. Hamilton's Sheila says to the audience, her deer's eyes wide with the hope that you'll agree with her.
Everyone in ''Joe Egg'' is in some sense a cripple. And relationships in Mr. Nichols's world are meetings between people who have developed a shared dialogue that takes account of their different infirmities. Like Edward Albee's ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,'' ''Joe Egg'' becomes a trenchant, wonderfully theatrical examination of the private language of a marriage, and the ways that it enriches and destroys.
''Joe Egg'' made the reputation of Mr. Nichols, who went on to write such dazzling, generally undervalued works as ''Passion Play,'' ''The National Health'' and ''Privates on Parade.'' Though Mr. Nichols was the father of a child much like the title character in ''Joe Egg,'' his play is something more than agonized autobiography.
Indeed, ''Joe Egg'' shows a remarkably sophisticated feeling for the flexibility of theater, making the audience participants in the battle of wills among the play's characters. This is true from the moment ''Joe Egg'' begins, when Bri, a schoolteacher, addresses the theatergoers as if they were his students.
It's a brazen act of implication that continues as Bri and Sheila repeatedly turn to the audience for support, through monologues or asides. And when they address Joe, the unresponsive daughter (played by the lovely Madeleine Martin) for whom they have invented a host of fantasy personalities, they often seem to be pulling you directly into the conversation.
If ''Joe Egg'' works as it should, Bri's shabby sense of guilt and Sheila's shiny creed of faith are going to bite into you like those cat-borne fleas that have taken up residence in the couple's living room. It's not a perfect play. The second act takes some easy satirical pot shots at the supporting characters. But as the loving Broadway revival starring Jim Dale and Stockard Channing demonstrated in 1985, ''Joe Egg'' has the potential to elicit uncommonly honest tears and laughter.
Still clasping cherished memories of Mr. Dale and Ms. Channing, I wasn't all that keen on revisiting ''Joe Egg'' when it was running at the Comedy Theater in London last winter. I had the feeling that there might be less to it than I had recalled and that Mr. Izzard might turn the show into a personality vehicle.
But in casting younger performers as Sheila and Bri, Mr. Boswell brought a newly unsettling air of vulnerability to ''Joe Egg,'' a sense of people who had yet to form full protective callouses. And Mr. Izzard tempered his confrontational comic's persona with Bri's air of defeat. There was a humility in the performance that made it sting all the more.
Though there were rumors that Mr. Izzard was camping it up for his cult fans in early previews of ''Joe Egg'' on Broadway, I saw little evidence of this. It's true that Ms. Hamilton retains a vague air of the posturing theatricality she brought to her recent portrayal of the deeply affected heroine of Somerset Maugham's ''Home and Beauty.''
But her heightened presence seems to suit the capacious American Airlines Theater, where the stage is dauntingly wide, compared to that of the Comedy. And Es Devlin has nicely expanded her living room set, which is evocative of a young couple with creative tendencies making do on limited means.
I really missed only two things from the London production: the quintessentially 1960's hairstyles for the stars, which for some reason have been jettisoned in favor of more contemporary looks, and the device of having Bri and Sheila's vaudeville dialogues, in which they recall their visits to various pediatricians, seem as if they were taking place backstage. (In this version, they simply step to the edge of the stage.)
In other ways, though, the production has deepened, especially in the second act, which introduces other characters into the insular, darkly whimsical world of Bri, Sheila and Joe. That Margaret Colin and Michael Gaston, as a pompous, upper-middle-class couple, and the wonderful Dana Ivey, as Bri's doting and officious mother, are all New York performers somehow works to the show's advantage. You're more aware of these people as outsiders, and they bring out more than ever both the complicity and the embarrassment of Bri and Sheila as a social couple.
Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton have, of course, already completely hijacked your attention, dragging you by charm and coercion into the alarmingly intimate interior of one couple's relationship. As a woman who loves too much, and who expects love to transform its objects, Ms. Hamilton has a radiance that stops short, as it must, of saintliness. Part of that glow is purely sensual, though Sheila has little time for sex anymore, and you can sympathize with Bri's frustrations with her.
Mr. Izzard is more slyly persuasive in his portrayal of an emotional cripple, an anguished mix of adult intellect and a child's hunger for attention and affection. He uses the subliminal, masochistic anger common among stand-up comics to illuminate the essential self-disgust in Bri, his sad awareness of his moral limitations.
Though he needles Sheila with the assurance of someone who knows precisely where to jab, you still have the feeling that it's Sheila who always has the upper hand. And Bri's mortified helplessness in the presence of Ms. Ivey's gloriously passive-aggressive mother makes you understand exactly where the pattern has been formed for his relationships with women.
''Joe Egg'' is ultimately more Bri's story than Sheila's, and it's Bri with whom Mr. Nichols insists you identify, even if you would rather not. But with the generosity that playwrights command in creating their own universes, Mr. Nichols allows Sheila to end the first act in a transcendent declaration of hope.
As to whether it's that scene or Bri's ''Glass Menagerie''-like farewell at the end of the second act that affects you more deeply, well, it's a tossup. When the performances are as sonorously on key as Ms. Hamilton's and Mr. Izzard's, whether it's good faith or bad faith that's being expressed, it's impossible not to melt in empathy.
Sheila and Brian have so much fun together that, honestly, we almost forget that the source of their comic material is their grossly retarded 10-year-old daughter, who sits - or, more accurately, is propped into a sitting position - in her dead end of a wheelchair.
Such is the gift and the tough love of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," the pitch-black domestic tragicomedy that opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company last night in Laurence Boswell's crackling British transfer starring Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzard. Although Peter Nichols' bitter, wildly empathetic sick-joke classic was on Broadway in 1968 with Albert Finney, a movie with Alan Bates in 1971 and a Tony Award- winning revival by this theater with Jim Dale and Stockard Channing in 1985, the play has a psychological heft that would be daring in new work today.
Do not be lulled by the relatively conventional traditions: an early-middle- aged couple, a sick child, an expansive, quirky and artsy but shabby single-set living room. Brian, called Bri, begins in front of the curtain, barking amusing discipline ("Eyes front! Hands on head!") at us as if we are the unruly kids he reluctantly finds himself teaching. Then, in contrast to the meticulous washed-out realism of the Es Devlin set, Bri and Sheila periodically talk directly to us about one another and about their beautiful spastic child (the amazing Madeleine Martin) - whom they've cruelly nicknamed Joe Egg, a blank but exhausting slate upon which they have created a rich fantasy life of defense mechanisms.
Bri and Sheila have an entire repertory of conic routines to explain the problem birth and even more problematic series of doctors. In fact, Izzard and Hamilton - the only holdovers from Boswell's admired English production - are so comfortable with the contradictory passions in their characters that, more than once, we have to check Nichols' script to see if the actors are improvising. They are not.
Anyone who saw Izzard's imploding Lenny Bruce in "Lenny" on the West End in 1999 knows that his talents extend beyond his celebrated persona as a stand-up comedian and self-described "action transvestite." What we didn't know until now is that Nichols intended Bri to be played by a comedian. As effective as Izzard, the comic, is here as a dramatic actor, Hamilton, a dramatic actress, is equally persuasive as a comic sketch artist.
There is a chemistry between the pair that keeps its from doubting that Sheila and Bri could have stayed together through more than a decade of crushing disappointments. Izzard and Hamilton both have the wicked quality of children in their faces, a light behind the hurt in their eyes. Bri, a thwarted pop painter, needs to be a bit of a big baby and master of the attention-getting device. Sheila, whose embrace includes a jungle of houseplants and a cat with fleas, retains the lusty drive that keeps her from diminishing into a frill-time care giver.
Then there is Joe, described as a "parsnip" and, in the sketch about the German doctor, a "wegetable." Nichols asks us to be able to enjoy the gallows humor about her, hate ourselves for enjoying it and feel at least some of the heart-shredding agony her parents endure while trying to keep themselves alive. Martin, a gifted young actress, manages to do all that, even as she sits, still, in Joe's chair, with her eyes darting and one arm frozen into a bent paw. When she has one of her seizures, the other arm reaches out like Carrie from the cold earth while her mouth contorts helplessly into hungry smacking noises.
Such realism tends to be bathetic and manipulative onstage. Not this time.
Nichols, perhaps to counterbalance the stark reality, makes three supporting characters into cartoons - albeit brutally funny ones. The invaluable Dana Ivey is horrifically annoying, yet terribly sad, as Bri's mother, an overbearing working-class type who can't stop herself from saying "Wouldn't she be lovely if she were running about" every time she looks at her granddaughter. When Mum arrives in the second act, we see Bri's boyish charm darken into a princely streak of entitlement.
Michael Gaston is suitably unbearable as the wealthy, self-satisfied compassion junkie, while Margaret Colin is merciless as his take-no-prisoners snob of a wife. "Joe Egg," which speeds by at almost three hours, is dated only by Sheila's guilt at having slept around in her youth and Nichols' absolute refusal to sell out with sentimentality.
Such a lack of compromise is so unfashionable these days that it's positively radical.
There are few subjects still considered taboo in comedy. But here's one you don't hear many jokes about: brain-damaged children.
Joe, the 10-year-old girl in Peter Nichols' 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, is, as a doctor with a thick German accent explains to her horrified mother, "a wegetable." The physician elaborates: "You can say she iss a spastic vis a damaged cerebral cortex, multiplegic, epileptic. Keep her vell sedated. You'll hardly know she's zere."
That this routine inspires fits of laughter at American Airlines Theatre, where the Roundabout Theatre Company's new revival of Joe Egg opened Thursday, is not a testament to the growing crassness of Broadway audiences. Nichols' play, directed here with gentle conviction by Laurence Boswell, may have its flaws — for starters, it's too long at 2 hours, 45 minutes with an intermission. But insensitivity isn't one of them.
Neither is datedness. In pushing the envelope of black comedy to the point where humor and pathos meet, Joe Egg raises provocative questions about the relationship between love, dependence and guilt, and not just for the parents of handicapped children.
Laughter is the balm that eases such considerations, for the audience and Nichols' characters. Prominent among the latter is Joe's thirtysomething father, Bri, who married Joe's mom, Sheila, when she was pregnant and is still reluctant to embrace adulthood, let alone the rigors posed by Joe's condition. As embodied by British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard, Bri is a precocious stunted adolescent on a sardonic tear, using wisecracks to mask the grief and jealousy he feels toward his daughter, whose plight consumes his wife.
In his dialogue with the devoted, long-suffering Sheila, played with wit and grace by the excellent Victoria Hamilton, Bri sometimes breaks into other characters, among them the aforementioned doctor and a well-meaning but similarly inept vicar. These bits of shtick provide a comforting distraction for the couple and a vehicle for Izzard's droll sensibility.
The jokes become less escapist as the show progresses, and a few supporting characters help emphasize the direness of Sheila and Bri's situation. Michael Gaston and Margaret Colin show up as a pompous but generous friend and his cold-blooded wife, and Dana Ivey is haunting as Bri's possessive mother.
Madeleine Martin is similarly affecting as Joe, despite spending much of her time on stage sitting silently in a wheelchair. In an eerie fantasy scene, she moves about freely and addresses the audience in the animated tones of a normal, healthy young girl.
It's one of several moments that will give laughing theatergoers cause for sober reflection.