Theater review by Helen Shaw
If Bill Irwin, the greatest clown in America, wants to talk to you at length about Samuel Beckett, you pick up your bowler hat and go. Irwin has a rubber face and liquid limbs, and, thanks to a lifetime of performing Beckett’s work, he’s got the writer’s cadences ground deep into his brain. In a swift 78 minutes, he performs sections of Texts for Nothing, Watt and Waiting for Godot to discuss Beckett’s Anglo-Irish–via-French lilt, his “charged and mobile” pronouns and his use of vaudevillian silhouette. Perhaps because he can’t help himself, Irwin also goofs off. He gets a cane and pretends it’s a golf club, and suddenly five minutes have whizzed by in a haze of silliness. “That’s like scales for a clown,” he says, flinging the cane offstage.
The impression is of an intimate but very careful love. Irwin worries over repeating a word in a tumultuous monologue; he thanks the sticklers of the Beckett estate for their vigilance to their duty. This is Beckett-olatry, and his reverence sometimes keeps a lid on the emotion of the material. Beckett, as Irwin keeps telling us, is dangerous, but much of the playwright’s effect comes from sustained atmospherics and literal darkness. In this generous, sweet-spirited lecture, then, we can’t quite reach the mental space where Beckett’s mystery operates. Yet Irwin points to it and, with incredible craft, offers a tantalizing glimpse of performances yet to come. If he doesn’t quite give us Beckett’s cold darkness, at least he offers us the warmth of a votive flame.
Irish Repertory Theatre (Off Broadway). Texts by Samuel Beckett. Conceived and performed by Bill Irwin. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.