Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzardin A Day in the Death of Joe Egg(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Victoria Hamilton and Eddie Izzard
in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
According to Victoria Hamilton, the female lead in Peter Nichols's tragicomedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, she has rarely had so much fun rehearsing a play -- not even when rehearsing out-and-out comedies. Director Laurence Boswell agrees that readying the production, which opens tonight at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, has been a string of giggles. He adds that much of the frivolity is thanks to Hamilton's co-star, Eddie Izzard, whom Boswell rates as "one of the greatest improvisational actors I've known."

Izzard, famous for the stand-up routine he does in his own form of lipstick-and-nail-polish drag, confides that he's glad to be doing a play because he's intent on parading his abilities in this area of show business. "Now I can put 'actor' on my passport," he declares. "I wanted to try to prove myself in Britain and in America. You have to go out and stick a flag in and say, 'I can do this, guys!'" He has actually gone the actor route five times before, once having essayed the title role in Lenny and also having appeared in David Mamet's cryptic Cryptogram.

The work in which Izzard is making his New York stage debut with fellow Broadway first-timers Boswell and Hamilton is no run-of-the-mill offering; it's playwright Nichols's much admired autobiographical treatment of his and his wife Thelma's life with their severely handicapped daughter, Abigail. In this brave and bravura script, the Nichols stand-ins are Bri (Izzard) and Sheila (Hamilton), who cope with the enormous stress of their plight by indulging in humor as often as they can -- black humor, to be sure, but humor all the same. Calling their fit-prone girl "Joe Egg," they behave as if they're characters in comedy sketches, continuously trying to put a clown's face on a decidedly unamusing situation.

Eddie Izzard as Bri(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Eddie Izzard as Bri
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Boswell suggests that there has been something of a circus atmosphere during the rehearsal period; "I try to encourage actors to experience every night the surprise of invention," he says. This is something to which Izzard responds even more than he does to the couple of in-one audience asides he delivers during the play, which would seem to be an extension of his solo outings. Izzard reports that Nichols has said he wrote Bri "in part for stand-up comedian, which kind of threw me because I came from a sketch background. What I wanted to be was Monty Python!" (He's talking about his days as part of a group called The Sheffield University Fringe, which is where he learned "to jump into a thumbnail character.")

Ever since 1967, when A Day in the Death of Joe Egg premiered in England, producers have been concerned that the subject matter would be a turn-off for audiences. Indeed, when the play was first imported to New York in 1968 with Albert Finney as Bri, the producers shortened the title to Joe Egg. ("Nichols told me they were worried about a play with 'death' in the title," says Boswell.) But Izzard and Hamilton, who did the piece together in London for eight weeks last winter under Boswell's direction, scoff at any suggestion that the script is a downer. "They laughed right up to the end," Izzard comments on the show's Brit audiences. "It's quite an amazing thing." Ask Hamilton whether she's ever noticed the serious subject matter making her blue and she instantly responds, "No. Never."

Another reason that Izzard, Hamilton and Boswell continue to take heart is that Nichols and wife have set such remarkable examples. Hamilton recalls meeting the couple and describes them as "extraordinary" -- but she admits that when Nichols showed the young actress playing Joe Egg how to do the fits during the London rehearsals, "I had to leave the room." According to Boswell, Nichols was so deeply involved in the London production that he even tinkered with the script. (Hamilton mentions that a few lines added to the play grew out of some notions she had.)

Director Boswell, by the way, has had some year. Not only did he helm the British production of Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth, which has been a revolving door for Hollywood's youth (Matt Damon, Chris Klein, Anna Paquin, Freddie Prinze, Jr., etc.), he also put Madonna through her paces in David Williamson's Up for Grabs. Asked whether or not he considers that pop star to be a good theater actress, he replies, "Yes. What am I supposed to say? She got better and better." Mostly, Boswell remembers the traffic jams outside the theater, and he recalls seeing his 14-year-old daughter being interviewed by reporters as to her opinion of Ms. Ciccone.

Victoria Hamilton as Sheila(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Victoria Hamilton as Sheila
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Returning to Joe Egg after a year's break, neither Izzard nor Hamilton was sure what to expect. "It's weird for all of us," Izzard says, "like coming back to a dream." Hamilton remarks that, having done the play before, she's approaching it now with the kind of confidence that makes her ready to push even farther; "I'm finding more and more new stuff," she exclaims. A particular challenge, she has discovered, is keeping the right balance between comedy and tragedy in the play. (Presumably, the alchemy is different now than it was when she played opposite Clive Owen, who opened this production in London and whom Izzard replaced.)

Hamilton says she's thrilled to be making her New York debut. And she welcomes the chance to have 10 more weeks' worth of tries at Sheila because she's one of those thesps who are never completely satisfied with their performance --although, she says, "there are times when I think, 'That was close!'" And she is pleased to be re-doing a play for the first time in her career because this one has "an extraordinary story to tell."