Izzard and Hamilton Enchant Broadway

AP Drama Writer

He is a veteran of the stand-up wars, a comic whose cheeky likability and penchant for dressing up in women's clothing have given him cult status in certain circles.

She is a classically trained actress with sterling theatrical credentials that range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Sir Peter Hall's acting company at the Old Vic to the National Theatre.

So what are Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton doing together on the same stage? Appearing in a Broadway revival of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," Peter Nichols' mordant comedy about a desperate husband and wife coping with their severely brain-damaged daughter.

The production, a hit last season in London, was imported to New York by the Roundabout Theatre Company, augmented by an American supporting cast. Izzard, though, wasn't in it from the beginning.

The actor joined the London cast of "Joe Egg" in late 2001 after the play had been running for a while. He had caught the eye of director Laurence Boswell who was looking for a replacement for the original leading man, Clive Owen. Izzard went on with only a week of rehearsal and scored a huge success.

"I had seen Eddie on stage doing stand up and acting, and I think Peter has written a part that is pitched somewhere between the two worlds," said Boswell, who describes the play as "a mad variation on drawing-room comedy."

Izzard agrees. The play's first act appears almost improvisational, as husband Bri (Izzard) and wife Sheila (Hamilton) banter with each other and the audience and talk about their handicapped child, who they have nicknamed "Joe Egg." Yet, underneath the humor, their pain is palpable.

"This is a crossover piece, like `Lenny,'" Izzard says, referring to a revival of a play about iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce, which Izzard also did in London's West End. "There is comedy but there's also drama. It's a different discipline from stand up, but I like the challenge."

Izzard, joined by Hamilton, sits sipping coffee in the basement of the Roundabout's theater on 42nd Street. They seem like a married couple, completing each other's sentences or nodding in agreement when one makes a point about their work in the play.

The actors also project a stylish casualness: the touseled-hair Izzard in black T-shirt and tan slacks and only an offhand mention that, yes, he is a transvestite who likes to wear woman's clothes offstage; Hamilton, remarkably hip in a low-cut, flower-print blouse and fashionably tight jeans.

The 41-year-old Izzard began as a street performer. "Victoria started in the classics - `Joe Egg' was sort of her West End breakthrough," says Boswell, who knows from celebrity. After all, he directed "Up for Grabs," which unleashed Madonna on English audiences.

Izzard has played New York clubs before. Hamilton, in her early 30s, is making her Broadway debut in the show. In fact, it is only her second visit to New York, the first at age 15 on a visit with her father.

"I decided very early on that I wanted to take a very particular course," she says, discussing her acting career. "I want to be doing this when I am 70. When I looked at the careers of all the actors I respected, they all started in classical theater."

Hamilton set goals for herself - leading roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and other troupes, particularly in the first five years of her career. Shakespeare. Ibsen. Chekhov and more. "And I tried really hard not to accept work with directors who didn't inspire me," she says. There's not enough time.

"It's not so true in theater, but as far as film and TV go, particularly if you are female, you have a sell-by date," she adds with a laugh.

"Joe Egg" is, perhaps, better known in New York than the actors who are in it.

The play has had an extensive history on Broadway. It was first seen here in 1968 with Albert Finney and Zena Walker in the leading roles. In 1985, it was revived with Jim Dale and Stockard Channing as the embattled parents.

Now back for a third time, it has been one of the most acclaimed productions of the spring. And while "Joe Egg" is a long shot for the 2003 Tony Award for best revival - "Long Day's Journey Into Night" seems to have a lock on that category - Izzard could find himself with a Tony for best actor when the prizes are announced June 8. He's already won the Drama Desk acting prize, edging out such formidable competitors as Brian Dennehy and Simon Russell Beale.

Not bad for a comedian who saw his first play at age 7 and said, "I want to do that." He then had to wait until age 15 to get cast: a school production of Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors," in which Izzard nabbed a small but showy part. He played the jailer, handcuffed to the leading man.

Izzard and Hamilton had a year between the London and New York productions of "Joe Egg," both returning to it with what the actor calls "a dream memory" of the play. Yet, after two or three rehearsals in New York, the script came back to them.

"Joe Egg" may seem improvisational but it is not, although there are minor things, depending on audience reaction, that can change from night to night.

"The improvisational quality written into the play is to knock the audience off-balance and then pull them in," Hamilton says. "The minute they get safe and secure, they think they know what is going on.

"One of my worries about doing a play for so long is that part of your job is to make it special every night - and people have to believe that," Hamilton adds. "There is only a certain amount of time, I think, that you can actually do that for. The reason that it works with `Joe Egg' is that it is an outstanding piece of writing. When the play isn't as inspiring, then it's really hard."

And it does help if the actors totally click.

"I find that if she throws anything at me and I throw anything at her, we will just swing with it," the actor says. "Besides, when you improvise, there is nothing else you can do."