There are two main differences between the candidate debates on TV and the one in Old Hats, in which Bill Irwin and David Shiner don too-white teeth and try to one-up each other: 1. These clowns do it wordlessly, with mallets. 2. Unlike their real-life political counterparts, that isn’t their whole act.
Old Hats is back on a New York stage, little changed from the production at the Signature in 2013, and, for that matter, steeped in traditions that were dismissed many decades ago as….old hat. But the encore production of this flawlessly executed and cleverly designed show turns out to be irresistible, an antidote for nasty times, alternative medicine for flu season, a reminder that nearly anything done well enough – even mime and vaudeville – can feel new and hip.
The only obvious change from the last run of the show is the choice of singer and band leader Shaina Taub, who now provides the musical interludes. These allow Irwin and Shiner time for their costume changes, but function as delightful entertainment on their own. Taub, who has credits as an actress (she performed Off-Broadway in the much-lauded Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), doesn’t just sing and lead the four-member band. She also serves here as songwriter, musical director, piano-player, accordion player, song-and-dance trouper and straight man to the two clowns. Her jazz-inflected songs have titles like “Make a Mess,” “Die Happy” and “You Never Get Old to Me,” and have lyrics like:
Grief sleeps at my feet next to doubt
Don’t have the heart to kick them out.
Rather than provide a counterpoint to the comic chaos of the clowns, these songs indirectly underscore the tension in some of Irwin and Shiner’s routines. Like the best comedians, they don’t ignore the real world – they present it, skewed. One sketch has hobo Shiner digging through a trash can in the best Chaplin tradition. Another has Irwin fighting with his bullying iPad in wonderfully inventive ways. In a third, the two are bickering commuters who are literally laid low by daily stresses and the need to compete – one seeming to grow before our eyes as he browbeats the other into shrinking, and then vice-versa. They reach something of a truce by supplying each other medicines from their huge pill boxes. All of this speaks volumes (albeit silently) about the way we live now.
The two put their rubbery faces, Gumby bodies and clown talents to good use in more traditional ways — Irwin after all studied at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College; Shiner is an alumnus of Cirque de Soleil – although with a spin one suspects their teachers might not have anticipated. They present a magic act that is hilariously inept, with Shiner dressed as a sleaze-ball magician who keeps on dropping the objects he is supposed to make disappear, and Irwin as his blonde assistant kicking the incriminating evidence of their incompetence into a corner. (Your horizons will expand after seeing Bill Irwin in an elaborate blonde wig and sparkling silver heels.)
A warning to theatergoers who do not want to be picked on – don’t get a front-row seat. Shiner in particular likes to subject individual audience members to various levels of attention; he feuds with one, climbs over several, steals kisses and wallets from others. Sitting further back, though, is no defense from being selected as one of his four participants in “Cowboy Cinema,” a routine he originated at Cirque de Soleil and used as well in Irwin and Shiner’s “Fool Moon” in which audience members play out a scene in a silent film, which takes up a full 15 minutes of the two hour show.
There is only one sketch in which Irwin and Shiner use their vocal chords, and they go to town, scatting, reciting the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy, re-creating The Wizard of Oz, each engaging in one-upmanship – as they do throughout the show – to prove he’s the best. They’re both right.
Old Hats is on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, (480 West 42nd Street, New York, N.Y., east of 10th Avenue) through April 3, 2016. Tickets and details
Created and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner; Music and lyrics by and featuring Shaina Taub; Directed by Tina Landau. Scenic and costume design by G.W. Mercier, lighting design by Scott Zileinski, sound design by John Gromada, Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.