White Clowns, Dark Visions

Bill Irwin partly outfoxes himself; Finian's Rainbow is a crock where gold still glitters

You can understand why clowns identify with Hamlet. Theirs is, after all, an unhappy profession: They're always being menaced or chased by someone, always falling down or being knocked over. The unhappiness inherent in clowns is the source of the audience's sympathy and love for them: We're all unhappy, we know how it feels. Traditionally, the corners of a clown's mouth turn down to arouse that sympathy: The serial killer John Wayne Gacy entertained neighborhood children as a clown at street fairs. After his arrest, psychologists noted that he had invariably painted the corners of his mouth upturned; this arrogant refusal to acknowledge his unhappiness was a clue to his psychosis.

George Washington Lafayette Fox (1825-77), the hero of Bill Irwin's current onstage study of the woes of clownship, was America's first nationally beloved clown, a serial causer of laughs who, the antithesis of Gacy, seems to have harmed nobody but himself. The last child of one of those theatrical families who weaned great popular artists on the disturbing mix of magical elation and brutal hard knocks, Fox was apparently gifted with commercial foresight as well as comic genius. His innovations to a standard-model Christmas "panto," Humpty Dumpty, turned it into such a huge success that he was more or less compelled to play it for the rest of his tragically brief life; the show's Americanizings of panto's British stage conventions played their part in the evolution of musical comedy. Coming in just as the newly built railways were helping New York-based commercial touring companies supplant and finally replace the "permanent" stock companies that had grown up in most larger towns, Humpty Dumpty was one of the first pieces of American theater to be a "property," and Fox, as its star and partial creator, became a commodity and a national household word along with it. That he was also celebrated, among New York's cognoscenti, for his low-comic work in such Shakespearean roles as Bottom only added to his salability.

Irwin manages to convey at least some of Fox's laugh-getting charisma, in pastiche scenes that convey the raffish, chancy quality that mid-19th-century onstage life probably had; he's particularly well abetted by the impish Geoff Hoyle, as Fox's brother and sometime stage partner Charlie. Where Irwin loses his footing, predictably, is in the backstage scenes that are meant to chronicle Fox's career for us, exploring the significance of his stardom and his puzzling, rapid decline. The historical Fox seems to have gone insane; the alleged causes have included everything from bad genes and tertiary syphilis to the lead carbonate ("white lead") in the whiteface he slapped on several times daily. Irwin toys with these and other notions, in between quick flashes of Fox's less than happy relations with women, with race and other political issues of the day, and with problems of theatrical management. Mostly, though, Irwin sees Fox as a hapless artist exploited by one venal producer after another, his needy ego suckering him into fatal business decisions whenever he's flattered enough, till he's literally worked into dementia.

Irwin and Hoyle: Fools for thought
photo: Carol Rosegg
Irwin and Hoyle: Fools for thought

Details

Mr. Fox: A Rumination
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
212.244.7529

Finian's Rainbow
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
212.727.2737

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Some of this might be true. But Fox was a skilled artisan with managerial savvy, in a day when leading performers had a good deal more say in theatrical operations than they do now. In addition, Irwin's view leads to dramatic monotony, with each new manager merely shystering Fox a little more, and Fox inexplicably seeming ever more gullible. And, of course, Irwin's misguided faith in critical theory makes him keep reminding us that there's little actual data on Fox, and that this is only a "rumination," which gets to be increasingly old news. The pity is that Fox's story is so interesting, and Irwin so blessed with the potential to re-create it, that one wishes he had stopped ruminating on it and called in a playwright to dramatize it instead. Still, James Houghton's production is handsome, if over-busy; the supporting cast is good; and Irwin is always a delight to watch—even when, as here, he out-Foxes himself.

The concert staging of Finian's Rainbowat the Irish Rep is a sort of antidote to Irwin. Here we have a historic gem—the Harburg-Lane score of this 1947 musical—coming across almost unscathed. Even its shaky, wordy book (reduced to canny synopsis by director Charlotte Moore), which seemed outdated in earlier boom decades, has a renewed validity, what with Shrub and his CEO pals trying to reduce us all to sharecropper level. The story is literally a crock—a crock of leprechaun gold, that is, stolen from the Auld Sod by the heroine's father to bring socialist prosperity, racial harmony, and unharmful tobacco to the benighted state of Missitucky. When Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets are warbling, or John Sloman is clowning as a senatorial bigot, or Terri White is growling through a comedy song to arouse wall-shaking applause, then Finian's Rainbow is the brightest multicolored concatenation in town. At other times, regrettably, Moore seems to have forgotten that even concert stagings need staging; many of the cast don't seem to know what they're saying or why; and the normally delightful Jonathan Freeman seems to be battling both a bad cold and the blarney in Finian's role. Follow this Rainbow by all means, but mind the mud.

 
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