The great clown is forever in a dilemma he is unable to resolve. He is a loser. That's why the great majority of us can sympathize with him. He is one of us, yet he's the guy taking the lumps.
For a superb example of schlemieldom as art, scurry over to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater to catch Bill Irwin. This dancer and mime, this jelly-boned contortionist with the elastic face, offers a good example of what it might have been like to see Chaplin or Keaton as young men, or the commedia dell' arte when it first burst upon the Renaissance scene. The Irwin show is something like a silent movie that talks.
Irwin introduces himself from a bed. In nightgown and nightcap (fool's cap?), he wriggles about the mattress, plunks the pillow. Is he about to embark on a nightmare? For him, yes. For us, it's laughs, because we're mean and love to see other people in trouble.
Irwin spends the show's entire 90 minutes in a state of befuddlement. He is rendered helpless by a bullying reporter-critic (played with frenetic zeal by M.C. O'Connor), who peppers him with questions about where he stands between the old and the new. Irwin's heart is with the old but, since fashion dictates worship of the new, he tries to embrace the latest fads and pretensions. All this is done in terms of the theater but its universal application is clear.
Meanwhile, onstage to the left of the audience, Doug Skinner issues Irwin commands, questions him about his movements, comments sardonically on his predicament, plays piano, buzzer and bell, and accompanies himself on ukulele while he sings songs of melancholy such as "When You're a Long, Long Way From Home." The ditties are footnotes to Irwin's quandary as little boy lost and Skinner, a superb humorist himself, looks and acts like a sly professor.
The zany goings-on lag a trifle during transitional moments but the team of Irwin, Skinner and O'Connor supply a type of comedy that barrels into the belly yet ends up in the brain.
Wild horses - or at least enraged mules - almost had to be used to drag me, shouting and screaming, to the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Sunday night.
I was a reluctant bysitter (as a bystander, I might have made a run for it) at the first Lincoln Center performance of Bill Irwin's clown act, "The Regard of Flight."
That reluctance was based on the purest of prejudices - the man has been portrayed as a comic genius, and somehow that aroused strong skepticism. At best, I expected to be mildly, patronizingly amused; at worst, paralyzingly bored.
Yet, after a sticky first minute or so of non-acceptance, I loved it and found it marvelous. Irwin really is a comic genius.
His act - supported by two splendid zanies, M.C. O'Connor and Doug Skinner - is one of beguiling, Chaplinesque innocence and wickedly clever fun.
Supposedly he - or is it his musician Skinner? - is giving a lecture on "The New Theater" and "The New Vaudeville." His, or their, endeavors are constantly interrupted by a forensically inquiring critic, O'Connor, notepad in hand, who needs to have everything made muddily clear.
The unfortunate Irwin is soon at the mercy of three forces: the musician, who organizes the act like a schoolmarmish stage-manager; the warmly pursuing critic and some terrible force of suction, which is forever sweeping Irwin off his unsteady feet, or pulling him bodily either under the curtain or off stage.
When in doubt, Irwin dances. When not dancing, he is battling with a huge wardrobe-chest (which contains steps down to infinity, and space for an army of enemies and a monkey's barrel-load of props), showing off his cantilevered boots or lecturing on art and artistry.
The man is a cherubic poem. He juggles with a combination of daft deftness and deft daftness, he does lovely things with hats and spaghetti, and he can collapse like a folding chair that has aspirations to be a whoopee cushion.
He is at his best when he dances - unnervingly good.
After a lifetime of watching dancers, I must say that, as an eccentric dancer, he is in a class either by himself or, historically, with only Broadway's Ray Bolger and the Ballet Russes's Leonide Massine for company. He is that wonderful.
As his critical nemesis, O'Connor is resplendent, chasing Irwin round and through the theater, goggle-eyed with inescapable logic.
Skinner, who wrote all the music and plays everything, including the fool and the piano, is a lovely straight man, and a Bergen-quality ventriloquist to boot.
Moreover, just when you think it is over all too soon, like a vacation, up comes Irwin with a magic coda he calls "The Clown Bagatelles."
This is a brilliant dance-episode encore that has him as a commedia dell'arte Pierrot - who gives us a digested "King Lear" - and a marionette Harlequin suspended, Marcel Marceau-like, on the invisible strings of our disbelief.
Irwin is a clown by whom future clowning will be benchmarked. He is a white rather than black clown - he is not a Grock, more of a Chaplin or a Keaton. And his performance could well prove the same stuff of legend.
As Bill Irwin demonstrates in ''The Regard of Flight'' at the Vivian Beaumont, it is not the size of the theater that matters but the size of the talent. Mr. Irwin has performed versions of this signature show in the studio space at the Dance Theater Workshop, on the compact open stage at the American Place Theater (in 1982) and on ''Great Performances'' on public television. ''The Regard of Flight,'' which returned to New York last night, is blissfully at home at the Broadway-size Beaumont, which, for Mr. Irwin's special spring engagement (through April 26), echoes with the sound of bountiful laughter.
To those who have managed to miss his previous appearances, it should be said that Mr. Irwin is a contemporary American performance artist whose name belongs alongside those of Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau. One difference is that he is a New Vaudevillian, a member of that amorphous band of variety artists who take a postmodernist approach to classic comedic techniques. One of the most refreshing things about Mr. Irwin is his sense of self-mockery. At its most seriously comic, ''The Regard of Flight'' spoofs itself and other examples of the so-called New Theater, in which, as we are told, there is no playwright or director but ''only the actor and the mythic text.''
In the case of ''The Regard of Flight,'' Mr. Irwin is his own playwright and director, and in both roles - as in his clowning - he is virtuosic. On one plane, the show is a dazzling display of physicalized wit, as the star offers doubletakes, pratfalls, hat moves and feats of gestural wizardry (such as walking down inside a trunk, as if descending a steep staircase). With his extraordinarily elastic body, he can sink his head into his chest and appear to lose half a foot of height, or, under a tentlike robe, he can scoot around the stage at a Toulouse-Lautrec level.
His facial expressions - bemusement, innocence, surprise, rapture - are an exhibition by themselves. Watch him, for example, combine daring with trepidation as he tempts fate on the proscenium. For some reason, perhaps metaphysical, he is always threatened by the proscenium arch. Whenever he approaches the wings of the stage - the Beaumont has been artfully converted into a proscenium theater for the occasion - he is vacuumed offstage by an unseen force. Feet first, he is hysterical, and, inevitably, this gives him a fear of flailing.
Being funny in the spotlight, cavorting with his colleagues (Doug Skinner, his alert ally on the piano, and M. C. O'Connor, a skeptic in the house), he is hilarious. As a running gag, there is the chase, as Mr. O'Connor ardently pursues the star on and around the stage and through the audience. Trying to elude the pursuer, Mr. Irwin craftily assumes alternative guises, at one point emerging from his apparently bottomless trunk wearing a big nose and glasses. With a sheepish smile, he lets us know that behind the deceptive facade, ''It's me!''
There is, of course, no mistaking Mr. Irwin. He is one of a kind, and in the revived ''Regard of Flight'' he is in glorious comic fettle. The new production offers minor variations, the recognition, for example, that the performance is in a larger theater. This means that he demonstrates the gravity-defying effect of ''lean shoes'' from the topmost aerie of the Beaumont - a moment of cantilevered comedy. At Lincoln Center, the show has not lost a bit of its edge or its artistry.
A swift 60 minutes of ''The Regard of Flight,'' proper, is followed by a postscript of ''The Clown Bagatelles,'' including a transformation from a Shakespeare-spouting Pierrot to a marionette Harlequin, an eloquent mime in which Mr. Irwin appears to operate his own invisible strings.
In a time when musicals have become top-heavy with technology, it is a pleasure to return to the pristine simplicity of ''The Regard of Flight.'' Once again, we see that one artist (with two talented helpers), precise staging and a total lack of pretension can unite in a magical evening of theater.