|Bill Irwin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Bill Irwin’s funny and informative Off-Broadway show, On Beckett, at the Irish Rep, reveals not only this Tony winner's (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) expertise at discussing acting and clowning, but presents seven selections from the work of Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer and dramatist,. And, like Irwin Corey, he even gets to poke fun at academia when, donning a mortarboard and over-sized robe, he does his own take on silly professors.
If it weren’t for the brief appearance of young Finn Sullivan to play the boy in a scene from Waiting for Godot this would be a one-man show and Irwin would be a definite contender for an award as best solo performer of the season. He’s such a magnetic, charming, informative, and accessible personality, it’s a wonder On Beckett, which he conceived and apparently directed (no one else is credited), isn’t called Bill Irwin on Beckett.
Irwin appears on Charlie Corcoran’s bare, black, proscenium-framed stage, quite nicely lit by Michael Gottlieb, with only two black cubes and a black lectern-like prop to accompany him. Wearing a white shirt and simple black suit, he chats amiably about his love for Beckett’s words, which have gone viral in his head. We learn of his various career encounters with Waiting for Godot and of his regret that he’s never done Endgame (in which this reviewer once played the role of Clov!). Irwin longs to do another production of Godot, whose variant pronunciations he delightfully explains, because, like so many other Beckett thespians, he feels there’s still more in it for him to discover.
Irwin’s discussion of Beckett is not, however, from a traditionally scholarly perspective but from that of an actor. Being the unusual player that he is, though, much of his approach derives from his joy in clowning. Although he’s played his share of serious stage, film, and TV roles, always excellently, his mark was made through his remarkable talents at physical humor, the kind honed in music halls, vaudeville, and silent movies.
Trim and youthful at 68, he remains eternally flexible, tripping (sometimes literally) with perfect skill through traditional shtick involving hats (especially bowlers, on whose Beckettian cachet he expostulates), canes, baggy pants, flipper-like shoes, and character silhouettes. Watching him sink and rise behind the lectern as if on a mechanical lift is only one of the visual plums he provides with elegantly humorous precision.
But, for all his rubbery grace and facial foolery, Irwin is also extraordinarily adept with language, and he scatters the evening with an array of Beckett selections demonstrating his impressive interpretive skills. The first part of the evening is devoted to a series of mostly arcane pieces from Beckett’s lesser-known, nondramatic writings, especially. Irwin rivets our attention by somehow transforming opaque, largely incomprehensible material into expressive streams of living text, even when we have no idea of what he’s saying.
Still, these obscure, oddly punctuated passages, including choices from Beckett’s novels The Unnameable and, while brilliantly presented, are too dense to maintain continued interest. I felt relief when Irwin came to Beckett’s theatre writing, even though the actor claims he couldn’t find anything suitable to extract from Endgame, forcing him to focus on Godot. Of course, Beckett wrote other brilliant plays but Irwin references only those two. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear Irwin do, for instance, something from Winnie in Happy Days?
Godot gives Irwin plenty to work with, particularly when he gets to Lucky’s puzzling, complex monologue, which he presents while holding a white rope extended from his neck as if Pozzo were at the other end. It’s a tour de force, of course, incoherent as it may seem. As with his renderings of the murky, nondramatic texts, Irwin makes the words sing while accompanying them with droll expressions and gestures.
On Beckett is filled with anecdotal features, both personal (including a bit about the late Joe Chaikin) and Beckett-related (as with Irwin’s commentary on how rigorously the writer’s estate oversees productions of his plays). He touches on some of Beckett’s main existential themes (which he calls “threads”), such as the human will to survive, but thankfully avoids going into the weeds.
It’s always inspiring to see Beckett well performed, even in the non-traditional context of a lecture-demonstration. Thus, seeing and hearing Bill Irwin explicate and demonstrate his approach to Beckett’s challenging material over a 90-minute stretch is an experience theatregoers, especially Beckett lovers, should relish. It also gives us hope that, before long, he’ll have the chance to do a production of Endgame. I somehow suspect that, if he plays Clov, he'll be a hell of a lot better than I.
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through November 4