Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Sonia Friedman Productions presents
It's laughter masking tears that informs every moment of Victoria Hamilton's performance in the new Roundabout revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. From the first moment she arrives onstage until almost the very end of the show, her face and physicality suggest a woman who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, yet is determined to laugh about it as much as she can.
In a way, that's very much the case in Peter Nichols's 1967 comedy. Hamilton's character, Sheila, must cope with her spastic daughter, irascible husband, and well-meaning but unhelpful friends as she attempts to deal with life. Though few people will be able to completely relate to Sheila's troubles, she represents something in everyone, the undying spirit that separates humans from animals and, in the right circumstances, can even move mountains.
And it's in portraying that element that Hamilton shines. She gets her performance as Sheila exactly right, articulating a woman in a truly unusual set of circumstances who nonetheless speaks for everyone who yearns to achieve what is seemingly impossible. By taking the darkest elements of human life and perception and extracting the kernel of humor (however small) from within, she is able to turn any moment into one of soul-stirring determination.
Hamilton's performance makes it all seem utterly natural, every aspect of her being rooted in hope, her unshakable belief that the possibilities of life will override the sadness, fear, and anger to which she's exposed at every turn. Her work charms and glitters from beginning to end, far and away the best work in the show. Only Madeleine Martin, who plays Sheila's daughter (the Joe Egg of the title) comes close to approaching her virtuosity; Martin vividly embodies and defines a character with almost no lines as if she were speaking multiple page-long soliloquies.
If no one else can accomplish quite what Hamilton and Martin can, nearly everyone else involved with the Laurence Boswell-directed production at the American Airlines Theatre inherently understands that A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a show packed to the brim with dualities. The script is capable of warming your heart one moment and breaking it the next; characters in it assist and criticize with the same breath; and even the set (here by Es Devlin, who also designed the costumes) is part coloring book and part Jo Mielziner. Very little in the show is exactly as it seems at first glance.
But that, likewise, is what gives the show its unique cleverness and power. Not only do the characters make frequent (and lengthy) asides to the audience, but blur the lines still further between reality and theatre near the end of the first act, when Sheila and Bri (Eddie Izzard) engage in a series of skits demonstrating what they've had to deal with just to parent Joe and get her the treatment she requires. These moments are very funny and not to be spoiled (if it can be helped), but reflect the core conflict in the show: Pain versus laughter. Hamilton, as mentioned, handles it brilliantly at every turn.
Izzard's work, here and throughout, is somewhat less distinctive. Though he has a great deal of stand-up comedy experience, he's generally unable to find all the laughs in many moments that should be roaringly funny. Bri's most over-the-top moments are heavily muted in Izzard's performance, a pervasive detachment informing his nearly every scene, and Izzard generally lets loose (and is most effective) when he is allowed opportunities for physical comedy, regardless of how broad or tightly controlled.
This lack of contrasts between the heavily comic and deeply emotional moments weakens Bri somewhat, bringing him too down to earth for his behavior and attitudes - particularly later in the show - to make much sense. This, coupled with Hamilton's bravura work, tends to undermine the show as a whole. The supporting players - Margaret Colin and Michael Gaston as a nosy couple working on a community theatre production with Pam and Dana Ivey as Bri's mother - are all almost exactly right (with Ivey a bit better still) but can't compensate for the lack of balance in the central family unit.
As every major moment in the show thrives on this - much of the story dependent on the battle of wills between Sheila (always hoping for the best) and Bri (resigned to the reality of the situation) - it becomes a significant problem. Izzard's work is decent but not exceptional, smartly-crafted but not ingenious. Lacking that extra spark of inspiration, the connections between the characters are never firmly, unquestionably established.
Still, Nichols's play remains courageous and meaningful, a heartfelt
expression of love and loss told the way only theatre can. In the world of
Sheila, Bri, and Joe, fantasy can become real and reality can become
fantastic, with humanity - all its levity and frailty included - the driving
force behind it all. Their world, like ours, is one of few clear-cut
answers, life being one long process of sorting out the terms on which we
need to meet it. This production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, if
slightly flawed, radiates that message as brightly as ever.