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‘Largely New York,’ Starring Bill Irwin, Opens on Broadway

May 2, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ ″Largely New York,″ a Bill Irwin extravaganza that he also wrote and directed, is a merry marriage of video and vaudeville.

The show is tailor-made for people who have trouble figuring out how to operate their VCRs. That means just about everyone should enjoy this innovative entertainment, which opened Monday at Broadway’s St. James Theater.

Irwin, wearing a Mad Hatter chapeau, baggy pants, oversized glasses and an eager smile, is one of those clowns who knows the history of funny business, particularly the sublime antics of Chaplin and Keaton. But he also has a fascination with the present, especially the ever-changing technology of television that has reshaped the performance arena for clown comedy. What Irwin has done with ″Largely New York″ is bring past and present together. In the show, he plays a good-natured Everyman called ″The Post-Modern Hoofer,″ a character determined to tap his way through ″Tea for Two″ if only he could get what sounds like the Mighty Wurlitzer to finish playing the tune.

He never does, and the interruptions are what ″Largely New York″ is all about. Along the way, he encounters a variety of characters, people who inhabit that peculiar cultural environment called New York.

During his 75-minute adventure, the clown meets a pretty modern dancer, two breakdancing experts, a video production crew and a gaggle of academics, dressed in caps and gowns and looking like a convention of angry headwaiters.

Irwin’s journey, made without any dialogue, is controlled by a demented remote control device which he carries. He uses it to turn on stage lights, raise and lower curtains and activate various musical soundtracks.

Irwin swoons for dancer Margaret Eginton, who spoofs the angular, jerky movements of modern dance. Her choreographed actions are similar to the precision steps of Leon Chesney and Steve Clemente, two terrific breakdancers who deservedly earn cheers for their gymnastic feats of wonder.

The clown, a sweet romantic, follows Miss Eginton - not only in person but on a video monitor provided by someone called a ″videographer″ and his assistant.

In a way, Irwin has more of a relationship with this video equipment than he does with real people. In one instance, he becomes entangled in a video camera tripod and performs a kind of pas de deux with the equipment. The tripod leads.

In another, the comedian manages to find himself trapped inside a television monitor and then needs help from his breakdancing friends and a bright orange vacuum cleaner to get out. The vacuum finally whooshes Irwin out of the tube and into his battered old actor’s trunk. A nifty trick.

In a third encounter, Irwin dances with his screen image and ends up being reprimanded by his TV counterpart for getting carried away.

Irwin also battles the stage curtain - and loses - but not before he is carried high above the audience by this man-eating piece of red cloth.

The clown also is badgered by the disapproving academics who follow him around the stage. One of them, called the Dean, ends up falling into the orchestra pit. But he’s a game fellow, particularly as played by Jeff Gordon who gives new meaning to the word pratfall. He keeps coming back for more and gets it, eventually swan-diving into the pit.

Much of this foolishness gets captured on tape by the videographer, and Irwin ends up appearing in and watching the show at the same time. The line between reality and illusion blurs, but they are linked by laughter. It’s a laughter that Irwin conjures up in the most inventive and dazzling way possible.

In other reviews, The New York Times’ Frank Rich said Irwin ″cuts a most human figure on stage and even allows himself a final-curtain kiss, but his clowning, however slapstick, often remains austerely intellectual in its preoccupations.″

Clive Barnes, writing in the New York Post, said Irwin ″is an enormous talent still trying to find a proper outlet.″

Howard Kissel, writing in the Daily News, said the work sometimes seems ″repetitive and facile, but it’s full of an irrepressible, impish imagination.″

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