Among David Shiner’s many unbridled talents is a real knack for peering out across a crowded auditorium of hundreds of alarmed faces, and knowing just which ones to select for the festivities. In the course of his two-hour mimed extravaganza, “Fool Moon,” Shiner chooses upward of a dozen people to participate in the loony antics that keep the rest of us grinning from start to finish.
Shiner made his debut touring with the exotic Cirque de Soleil earlier this decade. His partner in high shenanigans and low misdemeanors is Bill Irwin, who won a so-called “genius award” from the MacArthur Fellowship in 1984.
While “Fool Moon,” which first arrived on Broadway in 1993, has no pretense to be other than good old-fashioned clowning, its popularity is attested to by its return in 1995, and by its new revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where it opened last night. Clearly, this show has comeback power, which should come as no surprise for a work that speaks in the most universal language of all.
In the miming spirit of Chaplin, Keaton and Marcel Marceau, both Irwin and Shiner are clowns with exceptional abilities. As they fumble and fall and seemingly float on air, their bodies may appear gangly and awkward, but that’s merely a part of their performers’ ruse. They are imbued with a supernatural grace. And although they never utter a word, they maintain a nonstop dialogue with every member of the audience. This is human interaction at its most fundamental – and most hilarious.
At the very beginning, Shiner impersonates a theatergoer who can’t find his seat. Wielding his ticket, he literally climbs over the first two rows of the audience, checking other people’s stubs and getting enmeshed in their hair. Later he will try on someone’s raincoat, confiscate a handbag, and rearrange seated couples so he can photograph them with someone else’s camera.
Irwin makes his grand entrance, more properly, on stage, with an uncooperative microphone – a patently absurd prop, since he will never speak. As he becomes ensnared in the mike’s thick cord, his leg gets caught in the curtain’s hem, and moments later, he’s flying aloft when the curtain rises.
And this is just the beginning. Some of the most sublime moments occur in skits, where, remarkably, we know precisely what’s happening, almost as if this nonverbal team had subtitles below their feet or cartoon balloons above their heads.
In a highlight of the evening, Shriner recruits an obliging companion from the audience to go on a date. Their ride to a restaurant in his jalopy (a couple of bar chairs) is loony enough. But then their waiter at the restaurant – a bewigged Irwin in a Groucho Marx mask – proceeds to steal away Shiner’s partner.
While Irwin and Shiner seemed at the peak of their form five years ago, they reached new heights today.
Together, they guarantee a fool moon every night of the week in New York, from now until Jan. 3.
Everyone knows - instinctively at least - that clowns come in two colors, dark and light like coffee, or, if you like, black and white like old-time movies. Historically the dark clowns are bitter fellows such as Grock, while the light clowns are more cheerful, and more pathetic, such as Deburau.
Of course, to confuse matters every light clown has his blacker moments, and every dark clown has his brighter days. The show "Fool Moon" throws an effulgent light on America's two transcendent pantomimic clowns, David Shiner, he's the dark fellow, and Bill Irwin, he's the lighter-toned chap.
"Full Moon," devised by the two of them, has been to New York before, and it is just the same, but somehow just seems more insanely funny than ever.
These two are genuine comic geniuses, but just as in a great dance partnership - Fonteyn and Nureyev say - neither is quite as good on his own as he is in tandem with the other.
The show starts before the show starts. Shiner comes barreling into the auditorium, in his ridiculous hat and shabby costume, waving a ticket, and trying to forcibly push patrons out of their seats. Baleful and angry, he shoves people around, insults all and sundry, and behaves like a casebook model of obstreperous offensiveness.
With Shiner finally somehow seated, Irwin peers nervously around the curtain bearing a microphone. Everything goes wrong - at one point the luckless Irwin is dragged into the air by the curtain, and then precipitously dropped.
The characters are now established - not a word has been spoken, nor indeed will be all evening.
Their set pieces, usually involving the audience, such as Irwin's Harlequin act, or Shiner's home movie, or their joint restaurant bit, get more hilarious the more you see them, and their deft and daft dancing and general movement are a consummate joy.
Musical backing is, as ever, provided by the great Red Clay Ramblers, a country band that not only redefines country but also redefines band. By the way - fit for kids of all ages, from about 4 to 118 or so.
This, as you probably know, is Thanksgiving week, the week signaling the headlong rush toward the holidays that increases the exasperation factor in most New Yorkers' lives tenfold. It's the time when you have to shop and you least want to, when traffic moves at mere inches a minute, when pedestrians start bumping into one another like bats without radar.
People respond differently to this cruel and dangerous time. Some go to bed, some go to bars, some go to tropical islands. But the most sensible response is to go to ''Fool Moon,'' the wordless comedy revue that finds the poetry in life's most basic frustrations, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
''Fool Moon,'' created by and starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner, has been to Broadway twice before, in 1993 and 1995, and it returns for an engagement that runs through Jan. 3, considerately covering the span of holiday hell. This isn't a themed seasonal show of the kind provided by Radio City Music Hall or Madison Square Garden, nor is it even particularly topical. Much of it could have been performed, with only limited revisions, in a town square in Italy during the Renaissance, and the audience would have gotten it.
Yet through a series of mimed sketches, in which Mr. Irwin plays sweet to Mr. Shiner's sour, these fine physical clowns produce an evening that, in its deceptively silly way, bears the same relationship to contemporary urban dwellers that Sophoclean tragedy did to ancient Athenians. It's catharsis that's offered here, and not of a trivial order.
''Fool Moon'' is in the tradition of the silent movies of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, works in which life is a nonstop maddening wrestling match with the world at large. The show's first moments, in which the bellicose Mr. Shiner fights through rows of audience members to find a seat, are a canny, fun-house mirror of what most theatergoers have to go through just to see a play. Then suddenly there's Mr. Irwin, up on the stage, fighting against a recalcitrant microphone cord and losing the battle. Nothing, on either side of the proscenium arch, is going right.
Through the remaining, fleet-footed two hours, Mssrs. Irwin and Shiner face adversaries ranging from a plate of spaghetti to their own backup band, the charmingly poker-faced Red Clay Ramblers, whose music is usually directly at odds with the stars' aspirations to dance. Even Mr. Irwin's and Mr. Shiner's arms and legs can't be trusted; they have lives of their own, though you've rarely seen helpless awkwardness rendered with such balletic grace.
Audience members are recruited for several sketches, yet these are never the exercises in humiliation you fear they could be. Mr. Shiner's hatchet-man hostility (he seems to embody every nasty thought you've ever had about your fellow humans) and Mr. Irwin's gentle bewilderment counteract each other, defusing the potential for both the sticky whimsy and mean-spiritedness often associated with mime.
For the show's penultimate sequence, Mr. Shiner plays silent movie director (with Mr. Irwin kibitzing) to four audience recruits, and somehow their self-consciousness and anxiety is shaped into charming theater, something with its own rhythms and comic form. It's a bit like the famous sequence in the musical ''Sunday in the Park With George'' in which all the animate and inanimate elements onstage converge into Seurat's masterpiece painting.
Art has been allowed to triumph over chaos, at least temporarily. When you walk out of ''Fool Moon,'' the crowds and the noise seem less threatening and certainly far less annoying. Of course, that feeling only lasts for a couple of minutes. But what a relief it was.