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A CurtainUp Review
A Day In the Life of Joe Egg
By Elyse Sommer
A funny thing has happened to Eddie Izzard since I saw him in Dress to Kill at the West Bank Theater in Greenwich Village. He's become a first-rate actor, as proved by his current gig in the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Peter Nichols' 1967 play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. His stand-up comedy roots are not forgotten but instead serve his interpretation of the unhappy father of the handicapped child whose care has torn away at the fabric of his marriage; and for that matter, his entire life.
The play begins with Izzard stepping in front of a black curtain covered with chalk white math equations. Treating the audience as if it were part of his unruly class at the second-rate comprehensive school where he is employed, his demand for "hands on head" with absolute silence feels like Izzard doing his comic business, but in a corduroy jacket with elbow patches instead of a more flamboyant outfit.
Even after the curtain goes up and we leave the school for the home Bri shares with his wife Sheila (Victoria Hamilton) and their incurably brain-damaged ten-year-old daughter, there are numerous returns to comic monologues as well as duologues. These fourth-wall breaking segments trace the history of the tragedy that began with a difficult five-day labor. In several instances Izzard steps out of character to play some of the inept representatives of the so-called helping professions ( two doctors and a vicar) encountered during and after the child's birth. Each of these scenes is a gem that illustrates how tragedy and comedy can co-exist in one play, as well as the compatibility between Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton.
Izzard reaches into the depth of Bri's pessimism His sense of being a human fly trapped in a bottle is reflected in the constant sardonic jokes that prompt Sheila to declare that he spends his life "coining epigrams and wallowing in self pity." Hamilton's sensitively understated Sheila, on the other hand, uses a religion-based and more optimistic coping strategy that has her unrealistically hoping that Joe Egg (a nickname inspired by an expression "Sitting about like Joe Egg" used by Sheila's grandmother to describe times when she had nothing to do) will emerge from her spastic helplessness and become a normal Josephine. Their individual fantasies -- his of ending the child's tortured life, hers a dream of the child actually walking and smiling -- are excruciating to watch, which is why the humor is so necessary.
Like many 60s plays which broke new ground when first produced, Joe Egg is no longer the shocker it once was. In this anything goes society to express unspeakable thoughts about the subject of infirmity and treating it as the stuff of comedy is no more a taboo breaker than full-frontal nudity or expletive undeleted dialogue. Audiences have also seen plenty of characters stepping out of the naturalistic action of a play, to address the audience directly. And yet, Joe Egg doesn't need to be daringly new to deserve its place in the National Theatre's list of the 100 most significant plays of the twentieth century or the chance to be seen by those who, like its stars, were not old enough to go to the theater when it opened more than thirty years ago. Even the somewhat dated business of Sheila's guilt about her premarital promiscuity doesn't detract from the play's enduring appeal.
For one thing nothing can ever date the inherent drama of a parent's painful love for a hopelessly damaged child and the insidious way the feelings for that child can eat into the love of the parents for each other -- especially when each has a different approach to dealing with despair. For another, playwrights may be breaking the fourth wall all over the place, but Mr. Nichols is especially expert in effortlessly moving his characters from past to present, from real to imagined, from within the play to the edge where the audience becomes a confidante. Finally, Joe Egg is a feast for actors, and the stars as well as the ensemble of the production now at the American Airlines Theater follow a tradition of stellar performances, including the Roundabout's own 1985 revival starring Jim Dale and Stockard Channing.
Lizzie Loveridge reviewed this revival a year and a half ago at London's New Ambassadors Theatre when it was also directed by Laurence Boswell and featured the same design team. That was before Eddie Izzard took over the role of Bri from Clive Owen. Except for Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, who has been with this production from its inception, the American Airlines cast is home grown With the plot details just a click away in Lizzie's review (see link below), I'll focus the rest of my comments on the new ensemble and adjustments made to the set for the Roundabout's stage.
If you don't count the presence of the child, the first act is essentially a two-hander in which Bri and Sheila segue between the present and past. Young Madeleine Martin, a seasoned performer who's accustomed to singing and dancing in musicals, makes her Broadway debut as the little girl whose speaking part consists of a series of grunts. While Ms. Martin plays her part perfectly I found her just a bit too pretty and well coiffed. It might have been more convincing to muss up that Buster Brown hairdo just a bit and neaten it for her fleeting appearance in her mother's poignant dream; but then again, you could take that squeaky clean, well-combed look as part of Sheila's loving mothering.
While the second act continues with Bri and Sheila's coping games, Nichols broadens his exploration with three other characters to embody the more hurtful than helpful reaction to their plight by friends and family. The actors cast in these roles simply couldn't be better. Margaret Colin and Michael Gaston manage to be genuinely funny instead of caricatures of a couple whose life is everything Sheila and Bri 's is not.
Gaston is all bluster as Br's rich but socially conscious friend who wants to help by using his influence to put Josephine into a good home and enabling the parents to have fertility treatments so that they can know the joy of having a child that "functions properly." Colin,, the epitomy of self-involved complacency, speaks in acronyms that sum up her eyes wide shut attitude. She is particularly funny in a monologue in which she talks about her repulsion towards "N.P.A.",s meaning such "non- physically attractive" types as "old women in bathing costumes." No wonder she recoils from contact with Joe Egg.
Dana Ivey, one of America's theatrical treasures, has a brief but meaningful turn as Grace, Bri's sharp-tongued, judgmental, cardigan-knitting,l mother. Her all too fleeting appearance is enough to make us understand how Bri came to his sarcastic and pessimistic view of life. (As an aside, Prunella Scales, who played this part in London, is currently in King Lear at the Old Vic where Brian Clover raved about her comic talents).
The American Airlines Theater's very wide and deep stage makes the living room set, its walls covered with paintings that remind us of the painter Bri might have been, looks much more spacious and high-priced than anything a schoolteacher without an advanced degree could afford. The way that set slides forward and backwards (unlike the London set which was stationary) underscores this, though it is an elegant device that avoids the necessity for dropping the curtain when the characters transition to the monologues.
While the playwright has been quoted as saying this play is not autobiographical, his own experience as the father of a disabled child is evident in his sympathy for Sheila and Bri and even the well-meaning people who want to help but don't know how. It takes a truly compassionate playwright to show Bri at his most moving as he tries to end his daughter's life. All the tear-deflecting laughs notwithstanding, it's such heartbreaking moments that stay with us and continue make A Day In the Death of Joe Egg an evening to remember.
Video of the film starring Alan Bates & Janet Suzman
Nichols' Passion Play in London and Off-Broadway
Dress to Kill
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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