Egg´ Revival Reaffirms
April 4, 2003 By MALCOLM JOHNSON, Courant Theater Critic
NEW YORK - The Roundabout Theatre Company's biting, piercing revival of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" again confirms the heart-ripping brilliance of the young Peter Nichols, who drew upon his own pain for his first and most passionate play. Starring the stand-up comedy star Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, who played the torn young couple in a recent revival in London, "Joe Egg" easily surpasses the most recent major New York revival, which paired Jim Dale and Stockard Channing in 1985, with Long Wharf Theatre's Arvin Brown directing (he had directed Channing and Richard Dreyfuss in New Haven in the 1981-82 season).
Under the direction of Laurence Boswell, who also staged the West End version, Izzard and Hamilton make an especially real, and wrenching, Bri and Sheila because they seem so innocent and vulnerable. When "Joe Egg" launched Nichols' career in 1967, at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, black comedy was all the rage. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy put a new grim face on the world, and Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders," also new in 1967, rakingly depicted New York as it sank into the depths of disorder. "Joe Egg," in which Bri and Sheila attempt to combat their despair over the profoundly handicapped daughter by making terrible jokes about her and playing shocking games, fit the spirit of the swinging but sometimes brutal times perfectly. Now, 35 years later, the play seems better, and sadder, than ever, all the more because Nichols' career has foundered after successes with "The National Health," "Privates on Parade," "Forget-Me-Not Lane" and "Passion Play." "Joe Egg" is the nickname bestowed by the parents on their Josephine, discovered to be both retarded and spastic in her infancy.
The name comes from a colloquial saying in the working-class family of Bri or Brian, referring to someone who sits doing nothing all day as "Joe Egg." The play begins with Bri in the classroom, where he serves as the herdsman for lower-class kids uninterested in learning. "Hands on heads," he tells them as he stands before the backlit blackboard that serves as the drop in the production designed by Es Devlin. Then he leaves them, sitting there. Clearly, Bri has come to the end of his tether. He hates his job, lacking the degree needed to better himself. And, unlike Sheila, who copes and hopes, he can no longer live with Joe Egg. Still, he keeps inventing gags to offset the agony he feels, as if life were some Sisyphean comedy. Nichols crosscuts naturalism and music hall, and Boswell's production moves from the wide yellowish parlor hung with Bri's striking pop art paintings ( a split William S. Hart, with guns, and repeated Queens) and crowded with Sheila's plant life (and bird and fish) to the apron. There, against their darkened house, the couple acts out its skits.
Because of Izzard's background in stand-up, he plays the presentational moments with ease and deftness. But the classically trained Hamilton stays with him all the way, bouncing off hi s chats with the audience, as in a Ping Pong match. The split between the grim realities of having to care for Joe, wheelchair- bound and never-to-be toilet-trained, and the desperate fun that Bri and Sheila strive for, charges Nichols' play with a barely endurable dramatic tensi on. Most of the first act depicts their attempts to deal with an unsolvable problem that has nearly wrecked their marriage. Bri, who has engineered Shei la's new connection with an amateur theater group, now accuses her of carryi g on with Freddie, an old schoolmate of his, now rich. Also dredged up are Sheila's numerous premarital affairs. She herself blames Joe's condition on her youthful promiscuity. The games that Bri and Sheila play reenact some of the history of their union since her birth (after endless labor) and her diagnosis. In these, Bri takes on the roles of a bluff, forgetful doctor, and helpful, absurd vicar who suggests the laying on of hands.
These sketches show Izzard at his most bri lliant and fey, yet there is also an undertow of constant hurt. Act I ends with an especially visceral coup de theatre, as the ever optimistic Sheila imagines Joe as perfect. Here, the tiny, dark-haired Madeleine Martin, who has lain and twisted and moaned in her chair, rolling back her eyes and stretching out one thin white arm as a cry of help, suddenly emerges as whole. Under Adam Silverman's cel estial lighting, she skips rope and chants a counting song. Act II introduces Michael Gaston's big, stentorian Freddie, a well-meaning socialist capitalist, and Margaret Colin's elegant, superior, evasive Pam, w ho describes Joe as a "weirdie" and is surprised to see how pretty the child is. As "Joe Egg" careens to its harrowing ending, Dana Ivey's thick, good-hearted, but narrow Grace, Bri's blame-casting mum, arrives on the scene to m ake family life even more unbearable. Through it all, Izzard, looking at once chipper and beaten, takes Bri on a voyage of self-hate in a season of joy, when tinsel festoons the walls and a tree brightens a room filled with palpable darkness.