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Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
"A Child is Being Beaten"
By Charles McNulty

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
By Peter Nichols
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
Box office: 212-719-1300

Life (x) 3
By Yasmina Reza
Circle in the Square
50th St. west of Broadway
Box office: 212-239-6200

The figure of the abused child has haunted modern drama from its beginnings. Woyzeck’s illegitimate child in Büchner's masterpiece is perhaps the first born in a veritable orphanage of damaged children. Consider the casualties of Ibsen’s neglectful, narcissistic parents--poor half-blind Hedvig and crippled Little Eyolf. Or the memory of Lopakhin’s bloody-nosed youth in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Edward Albee, to cite perhaps the most extreme case in contemporary playwriting, has returned to the fantasy of the beaten child with the ritualistic fixation of one of Freud’s patients. From The American Dream through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to The Play About the Baby, he has mutilated, murdered, or rendered nonexistent the offspring of his protagonists. And Sam Shepard has made a career tracing the filial aftershocks of paternal brutality. In his essay “A Child is Being Beaten,” Freud says that the fantasy of child abuse is (surprise, surprise) a symptom of our incestuous natures. But more often than not the presence--or lingering palpable absence--of a wounded child onstage sheds light on a traumatic grown-up reality that can no longer be repressed. Sophocles notwithstanding, marital and professional discord rank higher as dramatic subjects than Oedipal angst.

Two plays receiving attention this spring season on Broadway employ background portraits of injured children to comment on adult relationships in the throes of crisis. Peter Nichols's 1967 somber comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, being revived by the Roundabout Theatre, revolves around a married couple trying in hyperactively vaudevillian ways to cope with the permanent reality of their severely handicapped daughter. Yasmina Reza’s Life (X) 3--a French comedy with fuzzy philosophical (and not so fuzzy commercial) aspirations--features the intermittent crying of an offstage boy who refuses to be assuaged by his parents’ efforts to shut him up. Though the violence these children encounter differs in kind and degree, each case opens a portal to something unassimilable in the demands of mature intimacy and love.

Nichols, who has written the more interesting of the two works, manages to transcend the autobiographical origins of his drama. The playwright is actually the father of disabled child, but thematic substance (as opposed to historical fact) structures his story. Maudlin self-pity and sentimentality--the two risks inherent in the material--give way to an expansive tragicomic truth. What’s more, Nichols’s willingness to look beyond suffocating realism to more elastic metatheatrical models helps make what is admittedly not the most promising of subjects (a spastic ten-year-old’s effect on a marriage) compulsively engaging and surprisingly upbeat.

Bri (Eddie Izzard) and Sheila (Victoria Hamilton) have spent the past decade raising their daughter Josephine, a helplessly brain-damaged girl whose adorable face is the only thing standing in the way of the label “vegetable.” Not endowed with a distinctive personality, Josephine (Madeleine Martin) has a series of farfetched identities imposed on her by her parents, who cope with their pain through comic routines. The roster of different “Josephines” includes a concert pianist dying of consumption, “a drunken bag” given to pipe-smoking and bottle-throwing, and “a Coach tour lady” with seasick pills in her bag and a hatred of foreigners. The little girl’s frequent groans, of course, have nothing to do with the maniacal act unfolding before her.

The stress on Bri and Shelia’s marriage is evident everywhere, from Bri’s short fuse with the students he unhappily teaches while waiting for his big break as a painter, to Shelia’s defensive wall of busyness. Their cluttered house physically captures the nature of the couple’s internalized domestic conflict, with Shelia’s green thumb and love of animals giving the place a comfy, lived-in quality, though it is frayed and flea-infested as a result. Clearly, caretaking has had its dilapidating effects, and nowhere more so than in the romance department. To Bri’s frisky afternoon advances, Sheila responds with a reminder that Joe, soon to be arriving home from school, has to be “fed, bathed, exercised, put to bed.”

While prankster Bri finds ways of sublimating some of his rage and channeling it into his disturbingly wacky paintings (including wearable sandwich boards displaying front and back images of Wild Bill Hickok), Sheila takes things out on herself. Her recent venture into amateur theatricals is a way to escape not only relentless household chores but also her own punishing guilt. Under her husband’s prodding, she admits to feeling responsible for her daughter’s condition: “I think it was partly because I had been promiscuous, yes, and my subconscious was making me shrink or withdraw from motherhood, all right!” Ever the sacrificing wife and mother, she offers herself up as a reason for the blameless domestic tragedy.

Yet Sheila’s humanity, burdensome though it can be, is the source of her empathic insight. Sensing the depression underneath Bri’s compulsive mirth, she reveals that she joins in the steady stream of jokes mainly to please him: “If it helps him live with her, I can’t see the harm, can you?” Bri calls his wife “a truly integrated person” who “embraces every living thing.” Sheila, on the other hand, is forced to question the psychological development of a man who can’t stop making light of grim reality. “Watching someone as limited as Joe over ten years, I’ve begun to feel she’s only one kind of cripple,” she confides wearily to the audience. “Everybody’s damaged in some way. There’s a limit to what we can do. Brian, for instance, he goes so far--and hits the ceiling. Just can’t fly any higher. Then he drops to the floor and we get self-pity again…despair. I’m sure, though, if he could go farther--he could be a marvelous painter.”
Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
The second act brings the couple’s strained intimacy to the breaking point, when Bri, pushed to the edge by a vicious combination of unfounded jealously, paternal despair, and sexual frustration, pretends at first to have murdered Joe, then takes steps to attempt the deed in earnest. The build-up, aided by a series of somewhat caricatured guests, amounts to a systematic piling of final straws. Pam (Margaret Colin) and Freddie (Michael Gaston), a neighboring couple dripping of bourgeois conventionality, intrude on the scene with coercive notions of normal life. Freddie, a model of well-intentioned but emotionally obtuse British resolve, tries to persuade his friends to place Joe in an out-of-sight residential school and adopt a “proper working child.” He also goes to great patronizing lengths to assure Bri that he has no intention of seducing Sheila while they are in rehearsal together. Meanwhile, Pam, who can’t abide anything “Non-Physically Attractive (“N.P.A” for short), shudders with the prospect of having to see the “weirdie.” Compounding matters is Bri’s mom, Grace (Dana Ivey), alternately coddling and castrating, who remains willfully oblivious to the fact that her son is trying to do away with her helpless granddaughter. The dark farcical spiral presents a Freudian smorgasbord of surreal pathology.

Nichols’s play is less a case study of parents dealing with an extraordinarily handicapped child than an ingeniously theatrical portrait of two people trying to sustain a connection in the face of ordinary emotional impairments. Hence, the real casualty is bound to be the couple’s marriage. Bri, unable to bear the burden of his own conspicuous weakness, makes his final cowardly getaway as his wife momentarily attends to her cats. All the gags in the world cannot prevent him from recognizing what he heartbreakingly lacks--the capacity for daily sacrifice demanded by family.

One of the signal accomplishments of Nichols’s play is the wicked contrast of tones. Joe Egg moves sharply between music hall shtick and poignant drama. Laurence Boswell’s brisk staging keeps pace thanks to the gamely versatile leads, Izzard and Hamilton, who are reprising the roles they created in London. Izzard, the droll standup comic who was formerly given to wearing rumpled articles of female drag, lends an improvisatory keenness to everything he does. A stocky bloke forever on the verge of paroxysms of common sense, he is both Everyman and Odd Man Out, an object at once of flattering identification and out-and-out scorn--in short, the perfect embodiment of Bri’s conflicted nature. Hamilton, profoundly touching in her character’s persevering goodness, holds her own in the comic pas de deux, which are enacted in such a freewheeling manner that it often seems as though the script has been temporarily discarded for impromptu free-association.

Far less impressive is Life (X) 3, a gimmicky comedy that replays the same failed dinner party in a trio of slightly different variations. The action begins with a French couple, Sonia (Helen Hunt) and Henry (John Turturro), bickering over their crying six-year-old who, forlorn in an offstage bedroom, desires a snack even though he has already brushed his teeth and been put to bed. Sonia is adamant about imposing discipline, while more pliant Henry would rather sacrifice oral hygiene for his son’s happiness. The inevitable attempts at appeasement only exacerbate the child’s tantrum, as every proffered apple slice and chocolate biscuit gives rise to more elaborate demands. At the pitch of an increasingly violent parental crisis, the doorbell rings. Hubert (Brent Spiner) and Inez (Linda Emond) have arrived a day earlier than expected for a dinner in which Henry’s professional fate hangs in the balance. As the new couple enter the fray of indulgence and denial, the stakes are quickly raised from bedtime snacks to professional and sexual enticements.

The outcome of Henri’s nervous ambitions--he’s a research scientist hoping to redeem his flagging reputation with a new paper on the Milky Way--is revised in each of the segments, with the first leaving him disappointed and humiliated, the second disappointed but fiercely proud, and the third successful but despairing. The rest of the characters, though given little fertile distinction of their own, mutate accordingly. More a protracted sitcom with a faux intellectual sheen than a well-wrought philosophical farce, Life (X) 3 never manages to make good on its triplicate conceit. It’s far less fun than even the recently over-praised German cult film Run Lola Run, which at least enhanced its reiterated situation with increasingly melodramatic high jinx. With Reza, the experimental form is really just a cover for boulevard banality.

As profitably shown in her Paris-London-New York gold mine Art, Reza has the knack of being witty yet unresonant--her laugh lines vanishing with the alacrity of dime-store bubbles. Though there’s something characteristically geometric about her dramaturgy, her latest effort raises questions about whether her vision lacks even schematic clarity. Her attempts at metaphysical lyricism, at least in Christopher Hampton’s translation (“Where would the universe be without us? A dreary, black place without an ounce of poetry”), fail just as dismally. An inchoate psychological interest perhaps resides behind the juxtaposing of a whining, tyrannical youth and the cacophony of wrangling adults, yet the work distills its central insight into ciphers.

The vacuous note is emphasized by Matthew Warchus’s no-man’s-land production, which offers a pseudo-Paris marked by French names and the occasional spot of Gallic lechery. (Hubert, the Frenchman from central casting, tries to sign Sonia up as his mistress with varying success in the three installments.) Mark Thompson’s generic set offers a contemporary apartment living room--anywhere the rents are presumably high--cordoned off with beams of fuchsia light that add just a subtle Twilight Zone hint. One should perhaps be grateful that no one took anything too seriously.

Stolidly glamorous, urbane, and perfectly at home with aggressive one-liners, Hunt remains as unchallenged on stage as she is on the small screen. She expertly delivers, in short, another two-dimensional boob-tube role. Turturro, perhaps sensing the play’s deficiencies, tries upping the theatrical ante. Always in dervish motion, he uncoils his rubbery body like a slingshot with every barbed delivery. Yet only Emond finds any real dramatic substance as the stomped-on wife. Responding to the dry put-downs of Spiner’s Hubert, she endows her character with an inner dignity that’s the gift of a mature actress who intuitively understands the ageless quality of our distraught screams.

[A theater critic for the Village Voice, Charles McNulty is the head of Brooklyn College's MFA Program in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism.]

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