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Old Hats

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Old Hats
David Shiner and Bill Irwin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Time has been considerably kinder to Bill Irwin and David Shiner than it has to vaudeville. While the once-ubiquitous American variety entertainment still hangs on only by a thread of imagined memory, the two contemporary clowns, the former sweetly avuncular and the latter sly with a sadistic streak, are still kinetic marvels in human form. And the 20 years that have passed since their joint Broadway breakthrough Fool Moon have dampened neither their spirits nor their talents. So in their new outing, Old Hats, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, you have nothing to fear but the frame of the vehicle they’re using to drive into your hearts.

And drive they do, as though blazing down the German autobahn. The opening image of Tina Landau’s production says it all, showing the men zooming through space and tunnels that resemble what a subway might look like in the Tron universe: all psychedelic angles and guttering lights with which no one, not even these two fleetest-of-foot performers, could possibly remain upright. The painful reality is rendered moments later when all the technological filigree vanishes in an instant, the future dissolving into something more obviously the past — a locale from which neither they nor you will be allowed to escape for the next two hours.

That’s okay. The past, after all, is when the human body was the world’s greatest innovation, and it’s impossible to imagine a more natural home for Irwin and Shiner. And as soon as they’ve arrived, they have no trouble making themselves at home. Within short order, they’re aspiring politicians struggling to one-up each other during a debate. Now one is a businessman whose electronic devices are developing minds of their own (all right, this is 1905 with a few forward-thinking touches); and the other is a hobo who finds romance in what is, for him, the only logical place: pieces of trash he sadly fashions into a dear, but temporary, friend. Next they’re a ramshackle husband-and-wife magic team, a pair of bickering septuagenarians waiting for a train, then a couple of hoofers vying for the attention of their encouraging pianist and giving in to the long-forbidden pleasure of (gasp) speaking and even singing onstage.

There is, at first, a particular poignancy to that last bit, as it suggests that even this duo’s art is something that can eventually be replaced. (Though, fret not, they learn the virtues of silence again before they’re through.) But if every other sketch similarly hints at the horrors of obsolescence, none of them leaves you believing that Irwin and Shiner should themselves be put out to pasture. No, they’re refined spirits now, who inject a more palpable sadness and sense of loss into their work that makes their bits just as reflective as they are funny. And if the men’s physicality is perhaps more tentative than once it was, they leave you secure in the notion that they have ability and energy in reserve well beyond what they’re deigning to reveal. They give you no reason to doubt that they could rewrite the history of the world on their own.

The old hats of Old Hats, then, don’t need any additional help — yet they receive it anyway. It comes courtesy of Nellie McKay and her band, who fill in the spaces between the scenes with songs likewise revolving around the theme of personal or social uselessness. One for example, is about the pleasures and pain of drifting through life, another about a woman who can apparently do better than find romance in (and, uh, perhaps with) a bodega, yet a third tweaking certain visions of feminism (with a clumsy shout-out to Michele Bachmann at the end).

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with any of these numbers, or McKay’s pre–second act promenade through the house, improvising new tunes and lyrics based on everything she observes or even momentarily considers. But so many such additions (there are seven full-length numbers), which receive so little participation from the ostensible stars, quickly spoil the flow and flavor of the proceedings and keep you from getting lost in whimsy.

Though any vaudeville homage this direct would demand music of some kind, for the ploy to work the songs would either need to be shorter of length or longer of variety. McKay’s sophisticated drone-whine becomes weary quickly, and without a theatricality equivalent to that of the jokers onstage it seems more of an intrusion than an elucidation. For her part, Landau has apparently not entirely decided whether this is supposed to be a rebirth of a moribund form or an elaborate comment on it. If the former, G.W. Mercier’s classically minded sets and costumes are forever at war with Peter Kaczorowski’s lights and Wendall K. Harrington’s projections; if the latter, the resurrection of the men’s classic scenarios (Irwin fighting a plate of spaghetti, Shiner directing a silent film with audience actors) interferes, and in any event no point beyond the resiliency of the practitioners is ever made.

If there were nothing more to the evening than its clowns, that would not be a problem. But, as executed here, they’re just two cogs in a much larger machine. At least they’re hard-working cogs, and you never tire of seeing the wonders perform when they’re left alone to do what they’ve always done best. The biggest flaw of Old Hats is that not enough people involved have seen that they can, and should, leave Irwin and Shiner alone far more often than they do.


Old Hats
Through April 14
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: signaturetheatre.org