Existence: Bill Irwin’s “On Beckett”

 

On Beckett 5

Bill Irwin performs a bit of Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

 

Bill Irwin, trained as a clown, is America’s foremost interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s works, despite having performed in only three of them. On Broadway, in Waiting for Godot, he’s portrayed both Lucky (alongside Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham) and Vladimir (opposite Nathan Lane as Estragon and with John Glover and John Goodman), and at ACT he’s performed in Endgame and a dramatization of several of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. I was able to see both Texts for Nothing and the more recent production of Godot, and they were revelations. Irwin uses his clowning techniques to portray Beckett’s confused, ill-at-ease, physically uncomfortable, restless, never-at-home-in-this-or-any-other-realm everymen with humor, wisdom, and compassion.

He is now at ACT’s Strand Theatre in On Beckett, a short evening that’s part performance, part lecture, and part discussion. It’s a master class in the fullest sense of that term. Irwin humbly tells us that he’s not a scholar and that there’s more that he doesn’t know about Beckett than what he does. He sheepishly confesses to having never been able to get through any of Beckett’s novels, despite having found passages in them that left him amazed and overwhelmed. But he speaks with passion and eloquence about what Beckett’s work means to him as an actor, taking us through the some of the struggles he’s had with the various texts, and sharing the virtues and joys of that process to us in the audience.

It’s a wonderful evening of theatrical enlightenment. Irwin is smart and knowledgeable and conveys his experiences with enthusiasm and insight. You see an actor at the height of his powers, wrestling with one of the most difficult playwrights of the 20th century, but you also see a great teacher. Irwin isn’t lecturing, he’s explaining why this material excites him, why it energizes him as an actor, and why it’s more important and relevant than ever.

He describes the penultimate scene of Godot and how he sees two great choices in Didi’s line to the boy emissary of the never-seen Godot: “Tell him… tell him you saw me and that…that you saw me.” Is Vladimir asking the boy to tell Godot that he exists, that there is a man called Vladimir who is waiting for him? Or is he betraying the sleeping Estragon, asserting his own existence over that of his companion’s?

Irwin discusses Beckett’s carefully (and infamously) proscribed stage directions, as well as the necessary wardrobe. There’s a wonderful examination of the bowler hat, with Irwin deftly demonstrating how the size and angle of it can drastically change how a character comes across, and a demonstration of baggy-pants clowning, drawing the parallels between Irwin’s performing experience and Beckett’s own love of vaudeville and music hall.

Watching Irwin is like being at one of Stella Adler’s great lectures on performing Ibsen, or the scenes from the wonderful Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, where Paul Gross as the artistic director of a Shakespeare company explicates some bit of iambic pentameter and makes it come alive with dramatic possibilities. On Beckett is a portrait of an actor at work, and it makes for a thrilling evening

In the post-show discussion, which is an optional part of every performance, Irwin entertained some smart questions from the audience. Asked about the decision as Vladimir to reach for Estragon’s hand at the end of his most recent Godot, Irwin explained that it had been a difficult tech process, with Lane at one point leaving the stage and announcing he’d be back when everyone had learned their lines. (“Since I was the only other person on the stage, it was clear who he was talking about,” Irwin admitted.) A some later point, the handholding happened organically, and neither the director nor the notoriously protective Beckett estate objected. He talked about another moment when he played Lucky: In Act II, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo accidentally dropped the rope that tethers Lucky to him. Because at this point in the play Pozzo is blind, Abraham couldn’t very well bend down and pick it up. So Irwin’s Lucky picked up the rope and handed it to Pozzo, effectively re-enslaving himself. Director Mike Nichols shouted “I love it!” and it was kept in.

Irwin was visibly thrilled when another member of the audience mentioned that she had seen the original 1953 Parisian production of Godot. She then asked Irwin if we would ever see him perform Krapp’s Last Tape, and a familiar voice shouted “Yes!” from the audience: ACT artistic director Carey Perloff. Irwin said he assumed he would someday but as of yet, it wasn’t a text he felt he understood well enough to do it justice. Here’s hoping that time comes soon.

On Beckett runs through January 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco.

 

Atrocity: “The Scottsboro Boys” at ACT

The Interlocuter (Hal Linden, center), with Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph, left) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) prepare to tell the tale of the Scottsboro Boys. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last musical together, The Scottsboro Boys, opened on Broadway after Ebb’s death, where it flopped, managing a run of only 49 performances. But its historical and deadly serious subject matter, concerning a particularly heinous bit of Jim Crow injustice in 1930s Alabama, has ensured the musical has had a rather successful run at several important regional theaters. (Prior to the current run at ACT, this production played at The Old Globe in San Diego. A slightly different mounting also occurred at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.)

The show has a risky conceit—using minstrel show conventions to comment on and portray the plight of the nine men (boys, actually—the youngest was just 12 or 13 and the oldest were 19) who were falsely accused of raping two white women. But Kander and Ebb, along with book-writer David Thompson, attempt to upend those conventions, employing them not to denigrate blacks for the entertainment of largely white audiences, but to comment on white perceptions and treatment of blacks. The attempt is somewhat analogous to what Thompson did with his updated book (based on the original by Ebb and Bob Fosse) for the 1996 revival of Chicago, where a vaudeville structure is used to present the hardboiled comic tale of the (fictional) murderess Roxie Hart. But Chicago is a musical version of a classic American comedy (by Maurine Watkins). The Scottsboro Boys is a musicalization of a tragic historical event. It would take a special kind of brilliance to pull this off, a brilliance not in evidence here. Instead what we’re left with is a perfunctory presentation that renders the story just another generic account of southern racial injustice. There is no emotional or dramatic connection with the characters on stage, and the audience is left tsk-tsk-ing past injustices and congratulating itself on having seen something daring.

Worse, the minstrel show structure ensures that if we applaud and cheer the musical numbers (specifically, the performers who sing and dance them), we’re complicit in the racist minstrel tradition, which is unfair not only to the audience, but to the actors. (I had to double-check to make sure that George C. Wolfe hadn’t written the book. The concept also calls to mind Spike Lee’s sour, preposterous 2000 film about a modern-day minstrel show, Bamboozled.) Thompson uses irony as a sledgehammer: It’s so heavy-handed it ceases being ironic and becomes merely banal. The Brechtian distancing techniques that were used to such terrific effect in Chicago and Cabaret here put all of the characters at such a remove that empathy is impossible. They’re too distanced from us. They never become human, and we’re never moved by their plight, except in a general, oh-isn’t-that-terrible sort of way.

The show is introduced by the Interlocutor (Hal Linden, the only white cast member), who is soon joined by Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery, who understudied the part on Broadway) and Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph). All three are traditional minstrel stock characters. The Interlocutor serves an MC, doubling as the high-up white authority figures in the story, judges and governors. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are the clowns who also portray the other white roles: the sheriffs, prison guards, and lawyers. Then the nine actors who portray the accused appear, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson. They sit in chairs arranged in a semi-circle (another feature of traditional minstrelsy), which are used in various configurations throughout to serve as train cars, prison cells, buses, and the like. Many of the actors double as other black characters, while two of them (Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) portray the white girls who accuse the boys of rape, thus beginning their horrendous odyssey. While hopping a freight from Tennessee, the boys are arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama, because of a fight with some whites (which they may or may not have actually been involved in).  They are then charged with rape by the two white girls, fellow travelers who have clearly made up the accusations to get themselves out of trouble. Threats of lynching, sentences of death (never carried out), years of incarceration, and other shocking miscarriages of justice ensue.

Clifton Oliver (left foreground) and James T. Lane (right foreground) as the accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

Thompson plays fast and loose with the historical record, which wouldn’t matter if the show had any sort of dramatic truth, but it doesn’t, so the necessary compression and rearrangement become troublesome. Roy Wright (Clinton Roane) is portrayed as considerably older than the 13-year-old he was (Nile Bullock, a young actor who is credible as a pre-teen, plays Eugene Williams, the other 13-year-old defendant), and other details of their ordeal are reordered, omitted, or disregarded. Samuel Leibowitz (portrayed satirically by Mr. Bones), the white, Jewish New York lawyer who defended the boys (at no cost) in their many retrials and appeals is horribly mistreated by Thompson. He is criticized for having a black chauffeur and maid (would he be less racist if he refused to hire blacks for those positions?), and his own sacrifices on the boys’ behalf are dismissed because of impure motives (as if “pure” motives existed anywhere but in bad narratives). When one of the white girls recants her testimony, she is first handed a sheet of paper by Leibowitz, from which she reads her new testimony, suggesting that Leibowitz has somehow unethically orchestrated this new development.

This all comes to a head in the musical’s dramatic climax. After spending many years in prison, Leibowitz approaches Patterson with a chance for parole, if he will plead guilty to the rapes. But the script’s Patterson is nobility itself, so after (briefly) agonizing over the choice, he refuses to lie, even though it would free him. And so, we’re told, he dies in prison. Here’s what really happened: Patterson later escaped from prison and fled to Detroit. The governor of Michigan refused to extradite him back to Alabama, so he remained free, until he killed a man in a bar fight and was imprisoned for that crime. Then he died in prison. But these truths play havoc with Thompson’s conception of Patterson as the incorruptible hero and Leibowitz as the shyster who would dare ask his client to compromise his principles. Thompson can’t trust his audience to understand people are messy and complicated, a fact that doesn’t mitigate the injustice done to Patterson one iota. Thompson apparently fears it does.

What the audience does respond to is the terrific, talented cast. Montgomery, Joseph, Oliver, Lane, and especially Duncan are ferociously talented, as are the rest of the players. The one criticism I have is against Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, who yells too much in his initial scenes. While anger is a justifiable reaction to being imprisoned on a false rape charge, Jackson’s performance is too one-note here, and it’s tiresome rather than moving. Superstar director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact, The Music Man revival) acquits herself ably, using the chairs in their various guises ingeniously, but she’s unable to overcome the flawed concept and too-obvious book. And what of Kander and Ebb’s score? The jaunty “Commencing in Chattanooga” which occurs on the train journey before the arrest is sort of fun, and the wistful ballad “Go Back Home,” which expresses the boys’ sorrow and longing for freedom, is lovely. But the other songs are overly didactic or obvious, and the decisions as to when the songs should be in the minstrel show convention and when they shouldn’t seems arbitrary and not well thought out.

In a show full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst is the use of its lone female cast member (C. Kelly Wright, who does her best in perhaps the most thankless role ever). Silent and omnipresent for almost all of the play, she represents Silenced Black Womanhood, or perhaps Silenced Black Personhood. Then at play’s end, Thompson uses Wright to transform Rosa Parks’ famous act of bravery into sentimentality, an idea as dumb as the son in Next to Normal turning out to be a manic-depressive hallucination.

The Scottsboro Boys turns out to be just another act of injustice against a group of men and boys who have already suffered enough. Thompson gives us only the barest details of the defendants’ actual lives. All we know at play’s end is that they were innocent, they had mothers, and they wanted their freedom. But we knew that going in. The audience is also unjustly antagonized for responding to the performances. To judge from Kander’s program notes, this was unintentional, which makes the transgression even worse—Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson are too smart to have overlooked this effect of employing a minstrel show construction. It’s also unfair to their talented cast, whose performances can’t be accepted on their own merits, and who aren’t allowed to portray actual human beings. Local critics are treating the production as an artistic triumph. It isn’t. It’s a disaster.

The ensemble, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson, sings “Commencing in Chattanooga.” (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

The Scottsboro Boys plays until July 22 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, go to www.act-sf.org.

Not in this Lifetime: ACT’s “Once in a Lifetime”

May (Julia Coffey), George (Patrick Lane), and Jerry (John Wernke) strike out for the West. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 glorious hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime is a classic of American theater that rarely gets done, largely because of the huge cast required to pull it off.  The 1930 Broadway production had 37 actors in the play’s more than 50 roles, while a 1978 revival (starring John Lithgow and Treat Williams) had a 29-person ensemble.  Having been in a production in college that utilized about 30 actors, I was excited to see that ACT would be presenting the play as this season’s opening production.  I was astonished to read that director Mark Rucker would be attempting to mount the show with a 15-member ensemble.  How could that possibly work?

In this case, the answer is, unfortunately, not well.  There are several terrific performances, and the solid construction of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarious script does shine through, but the play’s many scenes of overlapping dialog and seeming chaos need to be as finely tuned as a watch assembly.  Rucker seems to think he can get by with just throwing stuff on stage and seeing what sticks, and the big, noisy scenes are muddy instead of crisp.

The script shares a setting and many plot similarities with the later movie Singin’ in the Rain:  Three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians hatch a get-rich quick scheme after one of their number sees Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and realizes that the silent movie’s days are over.  They decide to cash in their savings and go to Hollywood to open an elocution school, teaching all those silent film stars how to talk. In this trio, Jerry Hyland is the dreamer; his paramour May Daniels is the tough, practical one; and George Lewis is, well, the dumb one.  Once in California, ego-driven, schizophrenic Hollywood takes the trio to vertiginous heights as well as breathtaking lows.

Idiot-savant George (we know he’s an idiot, Hollywood mistakes him for a savant) is wonderfully portrayed by Patrick Lane, whose large, doughy features beam a guileless delight as he tries (and generally fails) to comprehend all that’s going on around him.  (The script’s genius is that George only ever latches on to a few key phrases and is occasionally blessed by being able to repeat them at exactly the right moment.)  John Wernke, as the schemer Jerry who goes Hollywood big time when given the chance, has real presence and a great look, and he wears his period clothes immaculately, but the one thing missing from his performance is any chemistry with his leading lady, Julia Coffey as May.  This is not entirely his fault.  Coffey understands the period and the style, and she’s clearly a talented actress, but she seems to have a good ten years on both George and Jerry, an issue not helped by the hideous wigs she has to wear.  (Her first one looks like you could grate nutmeg on it.  Who’d she piss off on the costume staff?)  Lane and Wernke both have the smooth, slightly unformed look of youth, while Coffey possesses the sinewy toughness of a mid- to late- career dancer who exercises ferociously. This May and Jerry just don’t match up.

There are other problems.  With a 15-member cast, Rucker resorts to a lot of stunt-casting in assigning multiple roles to each actor. Three of the cast members appear in drag: in two cases (Jason Frank as a starlet and Margo Hall as both a porter and a studio exec), it’s a fleeting distraction, but in the third case, Nick Gabriel as studio head Herman Glogauer’s secretary Miss Leighton, it’s a real mistake. Gabriel has a heavy beard, which no amount of make-up can conceal.  A Miss Leighton with 5:00 shadow doesn’t really work. Rucker then allows Gabriel free reign to give a drag-diva performance.  He sports a Louise Brooks-style bob, a long, flowing black deco-style dress (also a mistake: the dress is more 30s than 20s), and a sort of crouching, show-horse walk.  Gabriel is extremely funny, but he becomes the center of focus in all his scenes. Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), the playwright-turned-scenarist stand-in for the actual playwrights, both of whom performed the role at various times, isn’t allowed to make any impression at all in his first appearance opposite Miss Leighton, and the plot (and show) is thrown off-balance.

In some non-traditional casting, Margo Hall, the actress who was so wonderful in the Aurora’s Trouble in Mind, plays Mrs. Walker, the somewhat addled mother of would-be starlet Susan Walker (whom George takes a shine to).  There would be a better chance of success if the production’s Susan, Ashley Wickett, were also African-American, but even so, Hall is surprisingly bad in the role.  She moves her body awkwardly and purposelessly and seems to be experimenting with her vocalizations as we watch.  And Wickett, in what should be a very funny role, is bland and leaves no impression whatsoever.  (The only laugh she earns is a result of the script, not her acting.)

As the two silent-film starlets with horrendous speaking voices, Marissa Duchowny and Jessica Kitchens make their first appearance clambering ungainly up hotel lobby stairs, and this is another error on Rucker’s part.  Silent film stars with lousy voices could nevertheless move with real elegance.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been stars.  Thus, when we first see them, we think they’re would-be starlets, not established actors, and furthermore, their speaking voices aren’t horrendous enough.  (You need to feel the impact of how terrible their speech is from their first words.) Duchowney adopts a pallid imitation of Lina Lamont, the ill-voiced villainess in Singin’ in the Rain, while Kitchens throws on some Carol Channing-style sibilants that don’t project well.  Kitchens does redeem herself later in a film clip that’s projected to cover a scene change.  It’s a purported screen test of her character Florabel Leigh repeatedly massacring a bit of Shakespeare.  It’s actually the funniest thing in the show, but it points out that her adopted impediment works in a movie close-up, but not in a theater as large as the Geary.

In the other major roles, Crother is actually quite good as the quintessentially sane Lawrence Vail, who nevertheless has to check into a sanitarium, and this despite the staging errors Rucker makes in allowing the character to be overshadowed by Miss Leighton.  René Augesen once again gives a marvelous performance as gossip columnist Helen Hobart.  She keeps pawing at Lane’s chest while expressing her respect for “Dr.” Lewis’s intellect, after he’s parroted bits of her own column back to her.  As Herman Glogauer, Will LeBow doesn’t have an explosive-enough temper, and Kevin Rolston could stand to be a little more outrageous as the German import, film director Rudolph Kammerling.

Daniel Ostling’s sets are quite handsome, especially the railroad car that takes the trio to Hollywood and takes May back again.  Alex Jaeger’s costumes are serviceable and occasionally very pretty, but he doesn’t do enough to distinguish between the various roles that the men play, the wigging is often ugly, and as mentioned above, Miss Leighton’s dress belongs to another period and another play.

As a final insult to his cast, Rucker has them involved in a tap number for their bows.  It’s a funny idea, but to pull it off, you need actual dancers.  (You also need to hear the dance.  The stage floor here muffles the taps.)  Unfortunately, most of the ensemble taps gamely but ineptly.

Despite some genuinely entertaining moments and performances, there’s not a lot at stake in Once in a Lifetime if you don’t believe May and Jerry care for each other and that Jerry’s infatuation with Hollywood leads to a real betrayal of May’s love.  Instead, you’re stuck with an underpopulated show that plods and stumbles when it should tap merrily.

Helen Hobart (René Augesen) confers with Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel). (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Once in a Lifetime continues through October 16, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For ticket information call 415-834-3200 or go to www.act-sf.org.

Beastliness: “La Bête” Gives Broadway Another Try

Mark Rylance as Valere gives beastliness a good name.

About a decade ago I reviewed David Hirson’s play Wrong Mountain at ACT, a poison-pen letter to the theatre as popular art. Throughout the play, Hirson sneered at the notion of connecting with an audience, and I grew more and more enraged as I watched it. Why was Hirson even writing plays if he detested audiences so?

Wrong Mountain did make me curious about Hirson’s first production, La Bête, as Wrong Mountain seemed to be a response to the earlier play’s reception. Produced on Broadway in 1991, it was savaged by Frank Rich in the New York Times, spawning an open letter of protest by several notables of theater, including Katherine Hepburn. The play closed after 25 performances but went on to become a success in London.

Almost twenty years later, the play is being revived on Broadway in a new production directed by the brilliant Matthew Warchus, responsible for the recent hits The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage. He brings along a spectacular cast, especially the stupendous Mark Rylance as the title character, Valere, a successful provincial clown performer who has captured the imagination of the Princess (Joanna Lumley, successfully cast in a role that was originally for a male), who wants to add him to the acting troupe she patronizes. The troupe is led by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), a high-minded intellectual. La Bête is set in 1654 France, and is written in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets à la Molière. (Elomire is of course an anagram for Molière.)

Although Rich was certainly right about the plays shortcomings, he appears to have underestimated its successes, which may be partly due to the role of Valere apparently being beyond the skills of its 1991 player, Tom McGowan.

There is no such problem with Rylance, who brings some unholy combination of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, Martin Short’s Ed Grimley from Saturday Night Live, and Shakespearean clown to the role, and he’s astounding. The role contains a 25-minute monologue (again, in rhymed couplets!) where Valere drunkenly pontificates, expounds, farts, spits, and belches, and exhibits the most deluded self-love ever seen on stage. His immediate audience for this display is Elomire and his lead actor Bejart (Stephen Ouimette). No one does outraged dignity better than David Hyde Pierce, and the succession of slow burns, shocked gasps, and unfeigned horror at the bombastic vulgarities of Valere are virtuosic, exquisitely timed, and hilarious. Ouimette, too, is terrific as he alternates between shock at Valere and preventing Elomire from doing bodily harm to the Princess’s new favorite. Lumley gets a fantastic entrance courtesy of Warchus, as a gale of glitter blows in from offstage, and she’s great at regal hauteur.

The contemporary verse plays I’ve seen (not that many, thank god) have been disasters, and for the first hour or so, I thought La Bête would be an exception. Hirson’s verse is natural and unfussy, often approaching the ease and wit of Richard Wilbur’s famed translations of Molière. In the midst of Valere’s monologue, he’s taken with an epigram he’s just crafted, but as he’s searching for pen and paper to record the (rather witless) witticism, he forgets what he just said and screams: “COME BACK! COME BACK, YOU TANTALIZING GEM!/YOU TEASE! YOU BITCH! YOU FICKLE APOTHEGM!/ I GAVE YOU LIFE AND NOW YOU FLY FROM ME!!/ This happens with annoying frequency.”

The problem with the play is the second act (Warchus presents both acts without intermission), where, once again, Hirson gets preachy about theater, basically excoriating the audience for enjoying the first act. At the command of the Princess (and the sly suggestion of Elomire), Valere is forced to present one of his performances employing the actors in Elomire’s troupe as a test of whether the merger of their two talents will prove fruitful. What follows is a slapdash Brechtian skit entitled “The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz.” The presentation isn’t especially entertaining on any level, and its moral, as the Princess puts it, is that “…mediocrity is bound to thrive,/ while excellence must struggle to survive.” Elomire, in his turn, derides Valere and his play as representing the mediocrity they pretend to oppose. Elomire’s speechifying offends the Princess who forces him to resign from his own troupe. Hirson thinks he’s presenting both sides of the argument, but Elomire is utterly defeated, a martyr to excellence, while Valere is triumphant, and it’s clear where Hirson stands. It’s much better to perform to an empty theater and maintain your principles than it is to engage with middlebrow tastes and intellects. Hirson is effectively flipping the bird to his own audience.

Hirson’s obvious skill and intellect appear to be at war with his chosen profession of playwright, and it once again begs the question: Why is he writing plays? Luckily, Warchus, Rylance, Pierce, Ouimette, and Lumley have no such animosities, and you’re left admiring the brilliant performances and Hirson’s talents, doing your best to overlook his hostile analysis of contemporary theater and audiences.

Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) and Bejart (Stephen Ouimette) contemplate the horror that is Valere.

La Bête plays until January 9, 2011 at the Music Box Theater in New York. For more information, go to www.labetetheplay.com.

It’s Scapin’s world… or is It?

Bill Irwin as Scapin confers with Jud Williford as Sylvestre in ACT's "Scapin." (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Molière’s late farce, Les fourberies de Scapin (The Schemes of Scapin), takes about 45 minutes to read and seems to have taken Molière even less time to write.  Here’s the plot: Two young men, Octave and Leander, have fallen in love with women their fathers will likely disdain.  Leander’s servant, Scapin, enlists the help of Sylvestre, servant to Octave, to trick the miserly patriarchs out of sums of money and into accepting their sons’ romances.  Complications ensue.  Le Misanthrope it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the great clown and actor Bill Irwin adapted (with playwright Mark O’Donnell) this lesser work several years ago, as Scapin, directing and playing the title role in both Seattle and on Broadway.  He brings a new production to the American Conservatory Theatre, employing members of their core company and MFA program in his ensemble.

I’ve seen Irwin on stage several times, twice doing Beckett, and I’m convinced he’s the country’s finest Beckett interpreter.  His 2001 ACT production Texts for Nothing was brilliant, audacious, and incredibly moving.  (I still remember him struggling to find a comfortable place to sleep on the rocky, hostile setting, shifting and turning in an attempt to find rest in a landscape that offered none, rendering the abstractness of Beckett’s words extraordinarily concrete.) His 2009 Broadway performance as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, remains the best production of Waiting for Godot I’ve seen. Fool Moon, a clowning collaboration with David Shiner, was a sweet example of how audience participation should be done, with respect and without humiliation.  And in his conventional performances, as in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, he brings a well-observed humanity to his work. The man is a marvel.

However, Irwin’s clowning skills, wondrous as they are, can lead to self-indulgence.  His Broadway performance in last year’s Bye Bye Birdie was a disaster.  Irwin focused on the clowning and threw character out the window, resulting in a mannered, overwrought mess.  His vocal choices were so affected that he incomprehensibly garbled the first word of his one song.  (The word?  “Kids!”)

His Scapin falls short of the sublime, unfortunately.  There’s much that’s hilarious: the adaptation is free and has no problems making fun of the limitations of the original script; the cast ad libs with abandon; there are anachronistic references to gay marriage, terrorism, and other current events that are often quite funny; and the scenes are peppered with lots of sure-fire theater in-jokes.  (When Scapin is carried on stage, apparently near death, he asks, “Am I center?” He isn’t, and has to be hauled back stage left.)  There are comic Brechtian touches, such as a sign bearing the word “Exposition” extending out of a stage left window when one character gets a little too involved with his back story.

As co-author, director, and lead actor, the piece should be all Irwin’s, and there are times when he’s amazing.  His voice tosses off one-liners, shouting in alarm, mocking and cajoling. The plasticity of his limbs and spine can be astonishing, but he too often seems to be showing off, walking around in cringing postures, scrunching or pulling his face, his feet roaming off in different directions, the movements divorced from both the plot and his characterization.  He stops the show (not in a good way) for these displays of shtick, taking far too long for his entrances and exits. (The play, only an hour and 45 minutes as is, could easily stand to lose another 15-20 minutes.)

Irwin and O’Donnell add two plot elements not in the original, although one, a love interest for Scapin, is borrowed from another Molière work, La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas.  Omozé Idehenre portrays Nerine with great aplomb, intermittently lugging trunks over the stage that no one offers to help her with.  When Scapin become tongue-tied in her presence, he observes, “Molière did not write this part, did he?” and Nerine replies with a stern dignity, “It is among the parts he did not write.”

The other addition is far less successful. For some reason, Irwin and O’Donnell include a chase scene in the finale without any textual or dramatic reason. Scapin simply decides to bolt.  It goes on and on as everyone trots around the stage at the same tempo with no real urgency.  It’s neither fast enough nor funny enough, another lapse in judgment that ought to have been cut.

The show does feature one spectacular performance, one seamless integration of acting and clowning that never devolves into self-indulgence, that hits the right tone throughout.  Jud Williford as Sylvestre has a beefy body and long face with a prominent chin and forehead, and he ‘s the best second banana ever. Williford is relentlessly inventive without ever breaking character or overshadowing the text, the production, or his fellow actors.  Eager to help and easily flattered, his Sylvestre looks on with energetic interest, his mouth usually open as if all this idiocy was brand new to him. He possesses a sweet, winning bashfulness.  When Scapin tries to sweet talk him into helping with a scheme, he asks, “Do you have a theater arts background?” (a damn funny line all on its own), and Sylvestre replies with an embarrassed pleasure, “Well, I did a little acting back in servitude school.” In another scene, he channels bits of Taxi Driver (Williford molding his rubbery face into a passable DeNiro), Midnight Cowboy, and Dirty Dancing, and at the end of this tour de force, he looks to Scapin for affirmation that he’s done well.  In another sequence, Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant to Octave, relating Octave’s own story to him while Sylvestre mimes and charades the details behind Octave’s back.  It’s the evening’s high point: Irwin’s timing is perfect and Williford’s imagination knows no bounds.

Gregory Wallace as Octave tries out several things in his depiction, with little consistency and less success.  When describing his first meeting with his beloved Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), he goes gay, describing the dress she wore and cooing over how adorable it was.  But since Octave isn’t gay, the moment makes no sense.  His voice is deep and tough-sounding at first (almost Brooklynesque in its accent) but this too goes by the wayside. At other moments, he just seems to be standing on stage, making no attempts at acting at all.  (Beaver Bauer’s costuming, otherwise fun and appropriate, fails here as well.  Octave wears huge thigh-high boots with a flare at the top, and an epauletted jacket with huge shoulders that comes down just above the hips, leaving his mid-section, garbed in tight, striped trousers, exposed and vulnerable.  If Wallace were to use this somehow, to make some choices consistent with his costume, it could be funny.  But as it is, he looks rather embarrassed.)

As Leander, Patrick Lane is better simply because he understands there isn’t much to the part.  He’s the young swain immersed in love and unconscious to the rest of the world unless it threatens to interfere.  Thankfully, René Augesen plays his paramour, Zerbinette with a worldly mirth that energizes the entire stage. Zerbinette takes her pleasure where she can, laughing at fools and delighted to find there’s such a large supply.  Despite the ridiculousness of her own name, she revels in getting Hyacinth’s wrong, hurling out whatever H-word comes to mind, including  “Hydrangea” and “Hyperbole.” Insisting that Leander marry her if he wants to continue the affair, she announces “Surprise! I’m a virgin!” and gets a huge laugh.  Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle (a fellow Pickle Family Circus alum along with Irwin) are also both quite funny as the hapless heads of family.

But Williford is Scapin’s ultimate winner. He shines without overshadowing and triumphs without conquering.  He’s a supporting and supportive actor, the very best kind.  With his easy masculinity, he’s also, despite all the foolery, slightly sexy.  It’s a shame he wasn’t provided with his own love interest.

Irwin’s name is all over the marquee, and he’s an undeniable talent, but by evening‘s end, the show is Williford’s.

Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) listens as Geronte (Geoff Hoyle) pontificates. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Scapin plays from now until October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street,
 San Francisco, CA, 94102.  For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.