at the Royal George Theatre Center, through March 25
By Nick Green
Perhaps it's a delayed reaction to the innovations of combative visionaries like Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman, but current stand-up comics have begun to resemble prizefighters. Some, like Chris Rock, conquer through brute force, battering their opponents into submission. Others, like Robert Schimmel, favor finesse and structure, dancing around their subjects before moving in for the kill. But the best comics, like the best boxers, succeed with a balanced attack. Maybe that's why England's Eddie Izzard--who combines the cunning and instincts of Muhammad Ali with the tenacity and intellect of Sugar Ray Leonard--is comedy's hot new favorite.
Izzard's no overnight sensation; he spent 12 years working his way up from street performer to a regular on the club and festival circuit, rising above his early awkwardness to establish himself as a stand-up comic of the highest order. Equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow humor, he's not afraid to pepper his socially relevant commentary with a poop joke or two.
Especially in America, where he's a relatively new commodity, Izzard's popularity is also tied to his outrageous, larger-than-life stage persona. Unlike Milton Berle and Flip Wilson, who used drag in some of their most memorable comedy sketches, Izzard declares himself a bona fide heterosexual transvestite: it's part of his sexual identity and of his routine. In his last show, Dress to Kill (broadcast as an HBO special), he described himself as both an "executive transvestite" and a "male lesbian." And it's worth noting that his career didn't really take off until he came out as a transvestite in one-man shows in the early 90s. Like Jackie Mason, Whoopi Goldberg, Denis Leary, and a few others, Izzard pulled himself out of the stand-up ghetto by tweaking his comedy routine into a "theatrical performance."
He developed and honed Dress to Kill over two and a half years--his first title bout and a knockout, slamming in on such targets as religion, hypocrisy, politics, and Scooby-Doo with a champion's aim. Thanks to its success, Izzard now finds himself on the brink of superstar status. A few months ago he completed a sold-out run in a play perfectly suited to his talents--Lenny, Julian Barry's early 70s drama about the rise and fall of Lenny Bruce, seen last year in the West End and scheduled for Broadway next season with Izzard again in the title role. And he appeared in three films scheduled for release this year.
At this point Izzard has only one thing to prove: that his success is no fluke. In effect, Circle is his first major title defense--and in boxing, the second major bout is often just as important as the first. But in his Chicago debut last week, Izzard buckled under the weight of expectations. In a show nearly three hours long with intermission, Izzard tested the limits of audience endurance with his largely unfocused, sloppy material and delivery.
At least Izzard continues to employ surprise as a potent weapon: he performed for the first time in years without his trademark lipstick and mascara. In fact, his wardrobe--platform heels, a western-style shirt, and loose, nondescript slacks--may have been the evening's biggest shock. "These aren't women's pants and shoes--they're my pants and shoes," he quipped in the show's opening, explaining his decision not to wear makeup as the logical extension of his desire not to be judged on his appearance alone. After 20 minutes, he completely shelved the subject of his sexual identity and transvestism. And even when he touched upon his favorite past subject, it was with a melancholic air: "I am a transvestite," he reminded the bewildered opening-night audience.
But in other ways Izzard never strays far from his own formula in Circle. Familiar territory includes his morbid fascination with murder and genocide ("We have no guns in Britain...OK, we have one gun and one nuclear weapon"), his contempt for Britain's royal family ("God save the queen? God spend the queen!"), and his affinity for American pop culture (Darth Vader trying to order lunch at the Death Star commissary). In fact, some of Circle's best moments--among them an extended riff on the Last Supper and jokes about his awkward adolescence and the American dream--are lifted wholesale from Dress to Kill. And the line that elicited the biggest reaction on opening night? Calling Margaret Thatcher "a cunt"--a cheap shock tactic from a prodigiously talented comedian who's proven himself capable of incisive commentary on political and social issues.
Izzard, who embarked on this tour the day after wrapping up Lenny, simply hasn't whipped Circle into fighting shape. For much of the show he paced nervously and looked confused; on several occasions he required prompting from the audience to recall what he was talking about. He seemed even more uncomfortable and unfocused after the lengthy intermission. After a tight opening bit for the second act that incorporated some of the themes from the first, he segued gracelessly from topic to topic for much of the final hour, speeding up his delivery as the evening drew to a close. But perhaps his awkwardness shouldn't have surprised us: in a sheepish aside five minutes after he took the stage Izzard admitted, "I haven't got a show."
In interviews Izzard has remarked that the title is intended to signify the cyclical nature of history--the way that contemporary attitudes can be traced all the way back to classical ideas. It's a fertile theme for a comedy show, but Izzard doesn't introduce it until Circle's final half hour, in a closing routine that offers a brief overview from Aristotle to the Renaissance. Even with a roundabout, tangential approach like Izzard's, structure and self-restraint are absolute necessities; with the least bit of fine-tuning and editing he might have incorporated this theme from the get-go.
Izzard capped Dress to Kill with an unexpected encore, a brilliant dissection of European cultural attitudes and language barriers delivered in both English and French. But Circle doesn't have a knockout punch. For the most part Izzard sticks to one-liners and quips and avoids the rich, character-based scene work that made Dress to Kill such a revelation. Mostly a flurry of quick jabs occasionally punctuated by a hook or a furious uppercut, his performance in Circle resembled the aimless stumblings of a punch-drunk fighter, not a champion at the top of his game.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lee Locke.