Old Hats Doesn’t Make Clowning New–But Does Make It Excellent.


It can’t be a coincidence that “one-upmanship” has that “man” right in the middle of it, can it? Guys’ hopeless need to trump each other powers the bravura (bro-vura?) comedy of Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Old Hats, a vaudevillian lark that’s all pleasure. The show, written and performed by Irwin and Shiner, pits two of our age’s great clowns against each other with predictable results. That’s no insult: The sketches are every bit as funny as a charitable theatergoer might hope for, and that includes the bring-up-some-schmoes-from-the-audience stuff–and even the iPad and Viagra jokes. Irwin duets with the former in a marvelous dance pairing tech anxiety with technical dazzle; his teensy doppelganger bounds across the Apple screen, into Irwin’s mouth, and, beautifully, onto the great backdrop behind him. The boner-pill bit is the inevitable payoff to the evening’s most characteristic routine.

Irwin and Shiner–who battle over the course of the show as political candidates, attention-hog showmen, and the his-and-her halves of a terrible magic act–here play businessmen dressing each other down on a train platform. As the power shifts between them, each man’s body swells or shrinks in proportion. Eventually, one swallows the wrong capsule from his days-of-the-week plastic pillbox, and his pants, already Brobdingnagian, tent up like they’re holding back Jack’s beanstalk. We see the joke coming, but this is post-everything meta-clowning, so that anticipation–stoked by these masters’ delicious mugging–is part of the bit. It’s like watching a jack-in-the-box, as we do earlier in the show, eager to see the craft of what we think we know will happen.

Not competing with boys, but tying on points, is Nellie McKay, the bandleader, musical guest, and occasional foil. As always, her cabaret-naïf act is superb and surprising, all peaches, cream, and then–just when you’re not anticipating it–a shot of something bitingly high-proof.