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Old Hats

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bill Irwin and David Shiner
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Maybe it's not so much that you can't teach an old dog new tricks as that an old dog knows when he doesn't need them? With the return of their latter-day vaudeville show Old Hats to the Pershing Square Signature Center, lifetime clowns and longtime performing partners Bill Irwin and David Shiner make it clear that they're secure in their expertise of distilling everyday annoyances into first-rate tomfoolery. No, not secure—happy. And so, as a result of this show directed by Tina Landau, so are we.

After all, there's something illuminating and inspiring about witnessing a master decades into his career ply his craft as though he were fresh on the boards. And when it's good, it doesn't matter if it's familiar. (There's the matter of the old dog, again.) So even though Irwin, Shiner, and Landau were just here three years ago, when Old Hats made its New York premiere in the same theater, there's a good reason for this revival: They've improved both it and themselves.

That's not to say that the show (or at least their portion of it) is substantially different—it's not. A few bits are gone, a few others have been added, but it's substantially the same celebration of the bygone variety art it used to be. (G.W. Mercier's turn-of-the-20th-century sets and costumes and Wendall K. Harrington's elaborate, busy projections establish a charmingly clashing tone.) But as a result of either the tweaking or the time that's passed, the stars are even more comfortable in it now, and it seems more necessary and urgent. As though time, for them as well as what they do, is running down, and they need to commit it to the public's memory before it's too late.

It will certainly be a long while before I forget their political debate sketch (interesting, because it was not one of the elements that lingered long in my memory last time), which draws from the surreal idiocy of the electoral process enough cliches for both to embrace (as dueling candidates) and topple. Maybe it's just the out-of-control equivalent in our own world that emphasizes the depths of its inanity, but through their frantic miming, raucous physical comedy (the duo's promises put obscene new spins on the concept of "pulling a leg"), and cracker-jack improvisational skills (a couple in the front row that let out one chuckle too many became the target of Irwin's character's ire—for the skit and then the rest of the show), but for those few minutes, there was never more to laugh about.

Bill Irwin, Shaina Taub, and David Shiner
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Their other scenarios, which range from Shiner as a homeless man who constructs friends from the trash he finds nearby to a technological showcase of Irwin breathlessly interacting with a digital alter ego to those in which they team up (once as a ramshackle 1970s magic couple, once as older men waiting for a train, and so on), are no less delightful even if they marshal perhaps fewer laughs. And though Shiner's classic take on amateur film production, in which he yanks audience members onstage to play the parts in a roaringly stereotypical western melodrama, garners considerably more, they're of the shallower sort. (Though the young gentleman who wielded the clapboard with an astonishing lack of agility, inspired Shiner to a dizzying display of mock mockery.)

But what Landau keeps firmly present throughout it all is the artistry of what they do, which in its razor-honed precision makes their most impossible gags look like things anyone could do. (Though, uh, I would not encourage you to try them at home.) And with the enhanced sense of this all as a last hurrah (or, at any rate, a climactic one), the go-for-broke-but-don't-actually-break-it atmosphere becomes palpable in a way it's never been before. "Will they or won't they? Of course they won't—they never do. But maybe this time...?"

It was in the overall structuring of the evening that the pair stumbled last time, because what they were doing could not be easily reconciled with the show around them. The third cast member has changed all that, however. Singer-songwriter Shaina Taub, who with her band provides the music (more than half a dozen original songs), brings to Old Hats not only a vital contrasting personality but a willing accomplice in their shenanigans. Whereas Nellie McKay, who assumed the duties last time, never felt completely at home among the wackies, Taub does. So when she steps into the spotlight near the end, equal parts gorgeous and gawky, to sing and strut alongside Irwin and Shiner in the song "Lighten Up," she's signaling that she's one of them.

We have no reason to disbelieve her, because by that point we've seen her numbers and her mien progress from vaguely cynical to tolerant to accepting and ultimately playful: the evolution of comedy, if you will, or at least a future comedian. Will her "character" end up where Irwin and Shiner have? Probably not. But who can say? Anything, they have taught us, is possible, whether you're an old dog or a young pup who's willing to sit back and be shown how it ought to be done.

Old Hats
Through April 3
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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