Comic Eddie Izzard spellbinding

By Lawrence Christon

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - The drumbeat has been out for a while now on Eddie Izzard, the British transvestite stream-of-consciousness standup comedian, but his latest piece, ``Circle,'' easily shatters any notion that his is a novelty act. Maybe the greatest tribute one can pay Izzard is that sometimes you're reluctant to laugh for fear of missing what he has to say next.

Transvestism is the least of it, barely alluded to (except that a bloke in spike heels is wise to avoid fist fights), and in fact is essential to a richly theatrical presentation -- he looks like a contemporary Constance Bennett cutting loose at a raucous backstage party.

There are dozens of characters and hundreds of takes in his densely populated universe, and he has a fine actor's instant skill at vivifying them all, from a gun-toting monkey shooting up Charlton Heston's house (''If guns don't kill people, people kill people, what happens if you give a gun to a monkey?'') to Darth Vader getting no respect in his Death Star cafeteria.

Izzard plays like a rock 'n' roll comedian at home in expletive-studded funk (Josh Monroe's lights, Sarah McGuiness' music and production designer Lewis Macleod create a rocker's venue), but he has a lot of layers and angles. And he brings history with him, too, not just the loopy history he tells us about where nobody asked questions before Socrates and Jesus' last supper was followed by a last breakfast, but the history of British humor, in which stubbornly sensible behavior has its counterpart in wild improbability.

It's the kind of humor that finds God, in seeing his universal creation rejected from below, trying to lift and cram the thing into a garage -- except he hasn't thought to invent one yet. In this respect, Izzard reaches back through Monty Python, the Beyond the Fringe gang and Spike Mulligan to Shakespeare and Swift.

But there's nothing ponderous in the reach. Izzard is very much a man of our hectic, disjointed time. He has a lot of early Robin Williams' nervous energy, and he taps into our free-floating anxiety over millennial history handed down in such bulk that none of it is quite comprehensible anymore.

In that context, Izzard's takes that Da Vinci's art dealer begged him to show the happy Lisa and sexy Lisa paintings instead of the glum Mona Lisa, and that Machiavelli wrote a political tract called ``The Artist Formerly Known as'' seem almost credible.

Izzard's false starts, clunker jokes and dead-ends also mirror our everyday, ordinary confusions; even his set pieces appear ramshackle by design. He's amazingly quick and alert to his audience but it's his range that makes just about every other sup out there seem empty and small in comparison.