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First, an admission: I hate clowns.
But I’ll happily make an exception for Bill Irwin and David Shiner, currently reprising their show Old Hats at off-Broadway’s Signature Theater. Even the routines you might have seen before — whether in their solo performances; their previous collaboration, Fool Moon; or this production, first seen in 2013 — are bursting with comic freshness and vitality, belying the fact that both men are in their sixties.
Despite emulating classic vaudevillian clowns with their top hats, baggy pants and floppy shoes, the duo take ample advantage of newfangled technology, courtesy of Wendall K. Harrington’s expert projection designs and Mike Dobson’s spot-on sound effects. The show’s opening features Irwin and Shiner frantically running, a la Indiana Jones, from a giant boulder projected on the screen behind them. In one skit, Irwin haplessly wrestles with ever-shifting images of himself on an iPad, no doubt boosting sales of the Apple device.
But all these expert clowns really need is their endlessly malleable faces and elastic limbs. In “The Encounter,” they play two men standing on a train station platform who get into a heated non-verbal argument, their bodies shrinking and expanding depending on which of them is besting the other. “The Debate” features them playing warring politicians making nonsensical points with mime and outrageous props, including carelessly handling a baby (actually a doll) snatched from the audience. If anything, the latter bit has grown more pertinent thanks to the current Republican skirmishes, although admittedly those are funnier.
The performers also juggle to perfection, although Irwin was clearly having an off night in their opening routine in which they engage in a contest involving their oversized hats. But as with all expert clowns, he made his failures even more amusing than his successes.
In a bittersweet sketch reminiscent of Chaplin, Shiner tugs at the heartstrings as a hobo who just can’t get a break. But he’s far more fun as a smarmy ponytailed magician with a female assistant (Irwin), whose tricks constantly flop. Pulling a hapless volunteer from the audience, he saws her in half with predictable but no less hilariously disastrous results.
Shiner also shines as an old-time movie director filming a Western scene using audience members as the performers. Although the sequence goes on a bit too long, his canny handling of his subjects, especially the more awkward ones, results in comic gold.
Both men are mostly silent throughout the two-hour show, with the exception of when they’re prodded by Shaina Taub, providing musical support with the accompaniment of a four-piece band. Ebulliently bursting with newfound vocal freedom, they sing show tunes, deliver a soliloquy from Hamlet and imitate characters from The Wizard of Oz, while engaging in over-the-top one-upmanship for the singer’s affections.
Taub proves herself an invaluable asset to the proceedings. Filling the role assumed by Nellie McKay during the show’s previous New York run, the adorable singer-songwriter performs such sardonically funny original numbers as “Make a Mess,” “Die Happy” and “You Never Get Old to Me.” Toward the end of the show she also throws herself into an exuberant song-and-dance routine in which she gets to kick up her heels. It’s called “Lighten Up,” but by then the message has happily been rendered redundant.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Bill Irwin, David Shiner, Shaina Taub
Creators: Bill Irwin, David Shiner
Music: Shaina Taub
Director: Tina Landau
Set & costume designer: G.W. Mercier
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Sound designer: John Gromada
Projection designer: Wendall K. Harrington
Presented by the Signature Theatre
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