March 14, 2000 |BY ANDREW PATNER |Chicago Sun-Times

In the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, you might have mistaken Eddie Izzard for a small forward from a visiting rugby team.

Square-headed with a rugged, blond goatee and a boxy build, clad in a black T-shirt and leather and chain-smoking American Spirit cigarettes, the British comedian appears, in his own words, "blokey."

"I'm a bloke," he allows over early-morning coffee. "I like to do blokey things: drink beer, smoke, be loud."

Normally, you wouldn't expect such an explanation from a stand-up artist who has been gaining a reputation playing toughs and criminals in such films as "The Avengers" and "Mystery Men" and who will be bringing an acclaimed Lenny Bruce characterization to Broadway later this year.

But then you notice the high-heeled boots. Not a punker's Doc Marten stompers, but svelte leather boots with tapered heels.

Izzard--the handsome, self-confident and daring bloke--is also a transvestite. And not necessarily on stage. For real.

"I'm not like Barry Humphries," Izzard says of the Australian comic who has been playing Dame Edna Etheredge for months to sold-out Broadway houses. "He puts on a frock and makes a character--a fine, funny character. I'm a male tomboy, a male lesbian. I do blokey things, and I fancy women. But I wear women's clothing and makeup--for me."

For our post-post-modern, millennial, globalized and gender-bent world, Izzard is the thinking person's entertainer of the moment. Appropriately labeled "a human search engine" by the New York Times, Izzard brings his newest one-man show, "Circle," to the Royal George Theatre mainstage tonight for his Chicago debut.

He's a boundary-defying, border-breaking, word-spinning, self-deprecating political junkie, a mental and physical Rubik's Cube who one way or another gets you on his unique wavelength and broadcasts to you nonstop and at top volume.

For Izzard, his cross-dressing matters as much--or as little--as his being a British comic "doing American."

"It might seem intimidating to make comedy from one place translate to another," he says. "But actually, it's a fascinating challenge. I mean, on the one hand we in Britain owe a lot to American stand-up because it was so different and so fresh when it came to us.

"But I'm also crazy about research and about history and finding out what people are thinking about and arguing about and fighting about wherever I play. I mean, forget America. I want to do my show in France!"

Anyone who has seen Izzard on late-night television or on his HBO special, "Dress To Kill," will know that for him, France is--as for many Brits--the ultimate foreign land. In the first place, as Izzard likes to remind us, "it's so French!"

But it also is a symbol of one of Izzard's favorite topics: Europe and the bringing together of nations and peoples.

"We've still got Tories in England who think that we should never have given up an inch of our empire, but that once we fully join up with Europe, we'll be forced to wear berets and eat smelly cheeses."

For the North American tour of "Circle," he has been reading up a lot on American politics and history and immersing himself in pop culture.

"When I'm here, I'll sit up at night in a hotel with the TV remote and go through 100 or 200 channels. Admittedly, there really isn't anything on any of them. But when you keep flicking them and blend them all together, it's wild!" Izzard has been through something of a cultural blender himself. Born in Yemen to British parents in 1962 (his father was an accountant for British Petroleum), he later grew up in Northern Ireland and then, after the death of his mother, in a series of "absolutely awful" boarding schools.

He began acting at school and found himself as a classroom cutup. He went to a university in Sheffield but dropped out after a year to become a busker, or street performer.

When he wasn't yet 20, he made his first appearances at Edinburgh's anything-goes Fringe Festival. Then he took his street act--sometimes with a partner, sometimes solo--to London, doing everything from escape routines to unicycle riding.

As American-style comedy clubs started opening, Izzard took his act indoors.

"I was still under the spell of the Pythons," he says, speaking of the Monty Python television and film troupe, "and I still am, really. But I was also trying to find a way to take their smart and bizarre humor and mix it up with the free form of stand-up and improv, which took me back to my busking routines in a way."

He cites Steve Martin as a major influence early on, and it's not hard to see how that blend of braininess, surreal, seeming normalcy and living on the edge would appeal to him. He has had five huge hits on U.K. stages.

His work with legendary stage director Peter Hall on the West End production of "Lenny" was a sort of homecoming after so much success with his own act.

"Lenny Bruce has to be a sort of god for any of us in this business who really care about what we do," he says, becoming both reflective and animated. "He loved language. He could come up with the most amazing comparisons and contrasts that were wholly original but made complete sense. He would be completely there in his act. And he had this amazing political consciousness."

Throw out Bruce's drug problem and add some wicked high heels, and you just might have a working description of Eddie Izzard.