Laughing Off the Hurt

As partners in the vaudeville act known as marriage, Bri and Sheila have performed this routine dozens, maybe hundreds of times before - the one where she pretends she's the switchboard operator and he's the Viennese doctor. Yet as portrayed by Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton in the Roundabout Theater Company's sensational new revival of Peter Nichols's "Day in the Death of Joe Egg," neither husband nor wife seems remotely staled by familiarity.

"Universal Shafting," says Sheila, pretending to answer a phone call. Bri looks startled. He hasn't heard that one, and it throws him off his stride. "You never put that in before," he says, smiling but accusing. Sheila beams happily. "Thought I would this time," she says, so pleased with herself that she can't stop giggling. Bri reconsiders the fictitious company's name, Universal Shafting, and throws a dart of his own. "Story of your life," he says to Sheila, and the joy drains from her face. Unlike many comedians who have long been linked, whether professionally or matrimonially, Bri and Sheila still have the capacity to surprise each other. And to crack each other up. And to wound each other in ways no one else possibly could.

When I first saw Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton perform this scene, more than a year ago in London, I was convinced that they had improvised at least part of it, but when I checked the script, it was all according to the text. And when I recently saw them enact the same lines at the American Airlines Theater in New York, where "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" opened last night, I again thought for one disorienting moment that they were inventing the words on the spot. That's the kind of freshness that comes only when a performer's affinity with a role is like a blood tie. And that's what Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton, directed by Laurence Boswell, bring to their interpretations of Mr. Nichols's play about the parents of a severely disabled child who use jokes to bandage wounds and to stop up the holes in a sinking marriage. They're a truly, spontaneously funny couple - so funny that they break your heart.

Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, the stars of the music-hall-style entertainment called "The Play What I Wrote," are undeniably a virtuosic pair. But for deeply synchronized teamwork, it seems unlikely that anyone this season is going to top Mr. Izzard, previously best known as a standup artist in women's clothing, and Ms. Hamilton, making her New York debut.

Working their way through the sharp thrusts and parries of Mr. Nichols's script from 1967 - and through monologues in which you still feel each is inhabiting the other's mind - they're like Astaire and Rogers skating through a perilously waxed ballroom. The big difference is that while Fred and Ginger were figures of romantic perfection, wafted on breezes of love, Bri and Sheila are dancing from desperation.

"We're all damaged - aren't we? - in some way," Ms. Hamilton's Sheila says to the audience, her deer's eyes wide with the hope that you'll agree with her.

Everyone in "Joe Egg" is in some sense a cripple. And relationships in Mr. Nichols's world are meetings between people who have developed a shared dialogue that takes account of their different infirmities. Like Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Joe Egg" becomes a trenchant, wonderfully theatrical examination of the private language of a marriage, and the ways that it enriches and destroys.

"Joe Egg" made the reputation of Mr. Nichols, who went on to write such dazzling, generally undervalued works as "Passion Play," "The National Health" and "Privates on Parade." Though Mr. Nichols was the father of a child much like the title character in "Joe Egg," his play is something more than agonized autobiography. Indeed, "Joe Egg" shows a remarkably sophisticated feeling for the flexibility of theater, making the audience participants in the battle of wills among the play's characters. This is true from the moment "Joe Egg" begins, when Bri, a schoolteacher, addresses the theatergoers as if they were his students.

It's a brazen act of implication that continues as Bri and Sheila repeatedly turn to the audience for support, through monologues or asides. And when they address Joe, the unresponsive daughter (played by the lovely Madeleine Martin) for whom they have invented a host of fantasy personalities, they often seem to be pulling you directly into the conversation.

If "Joe Egg" works as it should, Bri's shabby sense of guilt and Sheila's shiny creed of faith are going to bite into you like those cat-borne fleas that have taken up residence in the couple's living room. It's not a perfect play. The second act takes some easy satirical pot shots at the supporting characters. But as the loving Broadway revival starring Jim Dale and Stockard Channing demonstrated in 1985, "Joe Egg" has the potential to elicit uncommonly honest tears and laughter.

Still clasping cherished memories of Mr. Dale and Ms. Channing, I wasn't all that keen on revisiting "Joe Egg" when it was running at the Comedy Theater in London last winter. I had the feeling that there might be less to it than I had recalled and that Mr. Izzard might turn the show into a personality vehicle.

But in casting younger performers as Sheila and Bri, Mr. Boswell brought a newly unsettling air of vulnerability to "Joe Egg," a sense of people who had yet to form full protective callouses. And Mr. Izzard tempered his confrontational comic's persona with Bri's air of defeat. There was a humility in the performance that made it sting all the more.

Though there were rumors that Mr. Izzard was camping it up for his cult fans in early previews of "Joe Egg" on Broadway, I saw little evidence of this. It's true that Ms. Hamilton retains a vague air of the posturing theatricality she brought to her recent portrayal of the deeply affected heroine of Somerset Maugham's "Home and Beauty." But her heightened presence seems to suit the capacious American Airlines Theater, where the stage is dauntingly wide, compared to that of the Comedy. And Es Devlin has nicely expanded her living room set, which is evocative of a young couple with creative tendencies making do on limited means.

I really missed only two things from the London production: the quintessentially 1960's hairstyles for the stars, which for some reason have been jettisoned in favor of more contemporary looks, and the device of having Bri and Sheila's vaudeville dialogues, in which they recall their visits to various pediatricians, seem as if they were taking place backstage. (In this version, they simply step to the edge of the stage.)

In other ways, though, the production has deepened, especially in the second act, which introduces other characters into the insular, darkly whimsical world of Bri, Sheila and Joe. That Margaret Colin and Michael Gaston, as a pompous, upper-middle-class couple, and the wonderful Dana Ivey, as Bri's doting and officious mother, are all New York performers somehow works to the show's advantage. You're more aware of these people as outsiders, and they bring out more than ever both the complicity and the embarrassment of Bri and Sheila as a social couple.

Mr. Izzard and Ms. Hamilton have, of course, already completely hijacked your attention, dragging you by charm and coercion into the alarmingly intimate interior of one couple's relationship. As a woman who loves too much, and who expects love to transform its objects, Ms. Hamilton has a radiance that stops short, as it must, of saintliness. Part of that glow is purely sensual, though Sheila has little time for sex anymore, and you can sympathize with Bri's frustrations with her.

Mr. Izzard is more slyly persuasive in his portrayal of an emotional cripple, an anguished mix of adult intellect and a child's hunger for attention and affection. He uses the subliminal, masochistic anger common among stand-up comics to illuminate the essential self-disgust in Bri, his sad awareness of his moral limitations.

Though he needles Sheila with the assurance of someone who knows precisely where to jab, you still have the feeling that it's Sheila who always has the upper hand. And Bri's mortified helplessness in the presence of Ms. Ivey's gloriously passive-aggressive mother makes you understand exactly where the pattern has been formed for his relationships with women.

"Joe Egg" is ultimately more Bri's story than Sheila's, and it's Bri with whom Mr. Nichols insists you identify, even if you would rather not. But with the generosity that playwrights command in creating their own universes, Mr. Nichols allows Sheila to end the first act in a transcendent declaration of hope.

As to whether it's that scene or Bri's "Glass Menagerie"-like farewell at the end of the second act that affects you more deeply, well, it's a tossup. When the performances are as sonorously on key as Ms. Hamilton's and Mr. Izzard's, whether it's good faith or bad faith that's being expressed, it's impossible not to melt in empathy.