No one makes the task of a reviewer more difficult than Bill Irwin. His work is so full of surprises that if you describe it in any detail - and if you describe it with enough enthusiasm to make the reader want to see it - you've spoiled his fun, since he knows what to expect.
"Largely New York," Irwin's latest piece, is a kind of visual divertimento built on contrasting styles of movement. Irwin himself appears to have only minimal bone structure, which enables his body to move as fluidly as Jell-O. All the while he has a facial expression of great naivete and wonder, the Eternal Innocent finding amazement in everything.
Irwin's chameleonlike style contrasts with the formal elegance of Margaret Eginton, a supple and extremely graceful classical dancer, and with the dazzling, frenetic break dancing of Leon Chesney and Steve Clemente.
Further counterpoint is provided by a band of men and women in caps and gowns who trundle about the stage as curtly and mechanically as toy penguins.
(One of the penguins, Jeff Gordon, has a particularly odd skill, one that could fail if it were not done with Gordon's forthrightness and glee. But I promised I wouldn't give away any of the surprises, and I won't.)
The various styles of these performers might not mesh so smoothly if it were not for one of the leading players, a roving TV set, which is used with great ingenuity.
Ultimately, "Largely New York" is an extended cartoon, deliberately two-dimensional in its giddy images. Sometimes it seems repetitive and facile, but it's full of an irrepressible, impish imagination.
It may be time for Irwin to stretch his talents further, to create a character deeper than his naive, winsome hero, to build symphonies rather than extended scherzos, but there's no denying the originality and freshness of his work.
Soon after its very funny and ingeniously ingenuous beginning, something quite wonderful happens in Bill Irwin's show "Largely New York," which opened at the St. James Theater last night.
Irwin has been playing, with a splendiferously bewildered and befuddled confidence, on a remote control machine as if it were a Wurlitzer organ.
He and his control have raised curtain after curtain, switched on lights, done all sorts of things redolent of the divine simplicity of electronic wizardry.
Of course, Irwin doesn't remotely understand how the remote control controls - and soon it starts acting up.
But by now, Irwin has gotten to his clown trunk, taken off his coat - done what clowns have done from time immemorial, by carefully folding up the coat and then contemptuously tossing it aside - and prepared for action.
Then it comes. The wonderful happening. The stroke of pure genius. He dances, with a look of divine idiocy, a cane and a loose-limbed shamble, a "Tea for Two," and the world shudders and stops.
This is dancing at the level of a Baryshnikov. It is unbeatable and unquestionable. And you have to see it to understand it.
Then, almost as soon as he starts, he gives up. Once in a while - the show only lasts a little more than an hour - he starts "Tea for Two" again, but it never amounts to much.
He gets diverted. Indeed, the tragedy of this comedy is that Irwin seems to get more diverted than his audience.
Irwin is a marvelous clown, but here, for the first time in my admittedly rather limited experience of him, he seemed a clown looking for an arena. And a clown in need of clowning.
He has become a cult figure and will doubtless get, by and large, rave reviews.
It is customary to compare Irwin with Chaplin or Keaton, although I can't really think why, other than in an attempt to pin a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval onto his baggy pants.
Here, if anyone is making comparisons, he is rather more like that classic French film clown Jacques Tati as Hulot, battling with the inanimate perils of a mechanized world.
Specifically, Irwin is battling the strange wonders of video: its camera and its box, its magic and its image.
He pretends he has been caught inside the TV monitor - a quite adroitly performed schtick that goes on a little too long - and he does a little duet, a brief "Tea," this time literally "for Two," with himself on Tape.
The show is not entirely Irwin: there is a Merce Cunningham-style dancer (Margaret Eginton) who does her thing; there are a couple of break dancers (Leon Chesney and Steve Clemente) who do their thing, which is "popping and locking" to rap music on a boom box.
Finally, there is the Dean (Jeff Gordon), leading an ensemble of 11 clad in academic garb, who does his thing, which consists of various acrobatic falls into the orchestra pit.
Although the show is extremely short for Broadway (it costs, by the way, about the same as a Broadway play, which itself might give food for thought), it very soon becomes repetitive and even tiresome.
Irwin is an enormous talent still trying to find a proper outlet. And I very much doubt that it is an electric outlet attached to a TV monitor.
At the moment he seems like an unguided missile in search of a vehicle - yes, metaphorically, he's that mixed up!
Any fears that Bill Irwin, having arrived on Broadway, might have gone Broadway are quickly dispelled in ''Largely New York,'' the sweet, brief show that the invaluable New Vaudeville clown brought to the St. James last night. While Mr. Irwin may now be playing across the street from ''The Phantom of the Opera,'' he is congenitally incapable of succumbing to high-tech glitz. Not that he doesn't make a good-natured try. ''Largely New York'' opens with Mr. Irwin attempting to manipulate the theater's many curtains with an elaborate remote control. One is relieved to see that he need merely push a few buttons to gum up the works entirely (and hilariously) before retreating to his natural terrain, the bare stage.
Mr. Irwin holds that stage for 65 minutes with affable innocence, bravura comic talent and a little help from some gifted friends. Still traveling with a burlesque performer's classic gear - a steamer trunk of tricks, a top hat, horn-rimmed glasses, baggy pants, a cane - Mr. Irwin in repose is the earnest soul of blond, blue-eyed passivity. Then the world, whether of inanimate objects or animated people, comes crashing in. ''Largely New York,'' which was first seen in a workshop presentation at City Center a year ago, resembles the previous Irwin pieces ''The Regard of Flight'' and ''The Courtroom.'' It's a loose-limbed web of vignettes in which a well-meaning, spectacularly elastic outsider searches for physical and mental equilibrium in the nuthouse that passes for civilization.
This time, Mr. Irwin plays a character called the Post-Modern Hoofer, restricting his language to the facial and the physical. The New York he encounters is largely inhabited by equally mute dancers: a former member of the Merce Cunningham company (Margaret Eginton), a pair of boom-box-bearing ''poppers'' (as the upwardly mobile break dancers Leon Chesney and Steve Clemente are known) and an entire troupe of terminally severe mock Twyla Tharpists. An irrepressible mimic, Mr. Irwin can't help but adopt the terpsichorean technique of any and all comers - however incongruous the discrepancy between his white-bread personality and the wild idiosyncracies of his adopted ethnic or avant-garde dance styles. Eventually, and no less amusingly, the others take a stab at Mr. Irwin's own favored routine: a buck-and-wing ''Tea for Two,'' to Wurlitzer accompaniment.
Though dance is the primary medium of ''Largely New York,'' the message often pertains to technology. The first remote control we see is not the last, and the show is full of updated variants on ''Modern Times'' and Jacques Tati's ''Mon Oncle.'' The independent-minded theatrical and music-making machinery of ''Largely New York'' repeatedly breaks down, defying the cures offered by a much-consulted instruction manual. For added future shock, a ubiquitous video cameraman, trailing his monitor and an assistant behind him, is constantly inviting one and all (audience included) to mug for the camera in the name of performance art.
While Mr. Irwin's moralizing about technological dehumanization can be ponderous - he darkly reveals that people prefer the televised picture of violent reality to reality itself - some of the video sequences are so lively as to dispute his point. Both as comedy and technology, Mr. Irwin's duet with a videotaped image of himself is dazzling; what's more, the sketch is topped by a magic stunt that can honestly be called a post-modern reincarnation of the spirit of Harry Houdini.
Most of the show's other highlights are of a more visceral nature: the joyously syncopated rap-beat gymnastics of Mr. Chesney and Mr. Clemente, and the extraordinary running (and leaping) gags executed by the one-time Big Apple Circus clown Jeff Gordon, who leads a mysterious flock of formally robed academics around the fringes of the action. On stage and off, Mr. Irwin's collaborators throughout are first-rate, including the video designer Dennis Diamond and the co-choreographer Kimi Okada, who has obviously drawn on her own experiences in the next-wave dance world when distilling fashionable choreographic attitudes down to their self-parodistic essence.
It's typical of ''Largely New York'' that more passion is lavished on the satire of downtown esthetics than on the comic romance that Mr. Irwin gingerly carries out (often by video) with the lovely, resolutely deadpan Ms. Eginton. The bewildered Mr. Irwin cuts a most human figure on stage and even allows himself a final-curtain kiss, but his clowning, however slapstick, often remains austerely intellectual in its preoccupations. Along with the repetition of beloved past bits (the invisible staircase and the human vacuum cleaner, among others), this may be why his show seems too even in tempo and a shade overlong, even at 65 minutes. Though no one can accuse Bill Irwin of bending to meet Broadway demands in this charming entertainment, neither can one say that ''Largely New York'' offers a great talent or his audience the exhilaration of an artistic stretch.