For the 75 minutes of The Harlequin Studies, the first production in Signature Theatre’s all-Bill Irwin season, the stage is a place of pure playfulness again, and you can understand why W.S. Gilbert described the happiness of young love as “an existence à la Watteau.” If 75 minutes seems an outrageously short interval in which to experience such bliss, its brevity is a point of praise: How many evenings in the New York theater can you think of that you left wishing they were longer? At the same time, the show’s brevity is a clue to both Irwin’s limitations and his genius: If he lacks the structural skills that could make the event longer without making it a bore, his innate taste, artistry, and good sense instinctively stop him from letting it drag on. Knowing when to get offstage is itself a kind of genius.
Harlequin, Arlecchino, Arlequin, or whatever you choose to call him, of course does not act alone. He is a reactive or co-dependent figure. His brief solo flights, like the one here in which Irwin’s love-starved Harlequin drapes a coat tree with scarves and nuzzles it affectionately, exist to be cut short by our laughter when someone else’s entrance brings the daydreamer back to reality. And with others, Arlecchino is only foolish-like-a-fox. His usual partner is a master—Pantalone or the Dottore—who is a bigger fool than he, or an otherwise sane man flawed, as our clown is not, by avarice or pretension. And though always a scamp, Harlequin is generally on the side of good; the violent, the villainous, and the unjust are his enemies. I speak of his relations with men. Women are to Harlequin (as indeed they are to most males) an incomprehensible alien species: He adores them but is dumbfounded by their shifts of mood, reacting most stupidly when they display forthrightness or practicality.
But into this mysterious realm, Irwin’s delightful little sketch parade barely delves. We get Harlequin juggler, Harlequin peddler, Harlequin the creature of appetite, Harlequin outwitting a brutal master, and so on. Irwin’s supporting cast of seven includes three young assistants who manage the character’s traditional cartwheels and somersaults very gracefully. The bulk of the evening is Irwin’s spin on motifs from the old soggetto “Harlequin and His Master Wed,” which matches him against two equally droll masters, Paxton Whitehead as Pantalone and Rocco Sisto as the braggart Captain (in this version a malevolent bully whom we might call Captain Mesmerio); spunky Marin Ireland plays the latter’s daughter, whom he is using as bait in a scheme to get Pantalone’s money. Harlequin, of course, puts the kibosh on both this scheme and his master’s wedding plans before duly getting the kibosh put on his own.
Much of this is tremendous. To say that Harlequin foils the scheme by falling in love with the girl himself is to give nothing away, because commedia dell’arte is all about the arte, the way things are done. Irwin has a way; it is his essence, and everything he does is a part of it. I assume it evolved slowly and naturally, as such things do, not out of preordained rules in textbooks but from the interaction between his own impulses and the reactions of countless audiences, fueled by his constant delvings into commedia’s past. While completely alive onstage in the present, he is essentially a classicist; every stroke is both spontaneous in itself and evocative of some great historic clown image—an existence à la Watteau, Callot, Longhi, and their colleagues. But Irwin does not mimic the poses; he is not a set of tableaux vivants. He lives them.
There must always be something wrong about a clown; he is the onstage expression of the discomfort we feel at our own behavior. Irwin’s disparity is between his face and his feet: The high-arched, tiptoeing walk belongs to some preposterously haughty being, while the doofus look, with its big moist eyes and mouth gaping wide in stupefaction, should properly be attached to some clodhopper’s galumph. Irwin’s Harlequin is both these characters, the way most of us are two people; their collision in one body is the root of comedy.
As the fancy walk suggests, Irwin has a highbrow side. Part of his genius—and his dilemma—is the urge to be a scholar as well as a practitioner of the clowning art. Occasionally this misleads him. The mock-pedagogical prologue, cuing you to expect a historical lecture-demonstration in lieu of a performance, never quite becomes either a joke or a fact, and ends up feeling slightly half-hearted. One or two of the evening’s lazzi, similarly, fall flat or trail off owing to this uncertainty—Irwin’s self-aware desire to be a meta-clown hamstringing his ability to be the great clown he is. Even the night’s most brilliant sustained routine, when Irwin’s Harlequin and Whitehead’s Pantalone struggle to set the table before their guests arrive, is dampened by a long pause at its finish. Until then, though, it’s nearly as great as the sticky-fingers ladder sketch in Top Banana, an apex of burlesque comedy. There’s no sense in being churlish with Irwin; his modernist consciousness will do that anyhow. The reasonable response is gratitude that, thanks to him, we have so much of Harlequin in our own time.