There's prime real estate for a "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" line here, but it's better replaced with a question: Would you want to teach an old dog new tricks? If your dogs are Bill Irwin and David Shiner, expert goofs and creator-stars of vaudeville spectacle Old Hats, the answer is absolutely—but you don't really need to.
As soon as curtain goes up at Pershing Square Signature Center, our beloved comedic duo make clear they've downloaded the latest software and stashed away Fool Moon, their Tony Award-winning collaboration from twenty years ago. Hitting the stage at full sprint, Irwin and Shiner use floor-to-ceiling video projections to catapult from purgatory to the middle of the galaxy and back, gasping for air and working up furious sweats in the process. Then, without warning, the wheel appears, spinning our heroes to a halt like so many laggy Dells.
In the new millennium not even clowns are safe from slow load times.
But not to worry. Soon there's a crisp, inventive bit involving Irwin and an iPad (allowing him to dance with, eat, and even x-ray himself before being swallowed by a gigantic head), as well as remote controlled spotlights and numerous jokes mimicking the finger swipes that navigate Apple products. These are a few of the new tricks learned by the old dogs, and from the wide smiles of children and screams—really, screams—of laughter from adults, they're much appreciated. But they can't hold a candle to the classics.
Old Hats and its parade of vignettes and musical interludes is at its best when the tech is dropped and the boys get back to basics. And they're all here: slapstick, pratfalls, puppets, sad clowns, melodrama, mimicry, pulled faces, phallus jokes, audience humiliation. We laugh, inexplicably and uproariously, at two fat men on a train station platform sizing each other up. We howl as two politicians debate animatedly, trading verbal attacks for a good old-fashioned pop to the face with a boxing glove on a spring. The sight of Shiner sucking his cheeks until convex on a cigarette as a slimy magician while Irwin, in full sequined drag as his long-suffering and jealous assistant, stares daggers across the body of the girl they've sawed in half is enough to break even the most stoic show-goers.
If these set-ups fail to sound innovative or enticing, it's because they aren't. Not on paper, anyway. Old Hats isn't about edgy comedy, nor is it about digging up fossilized stage content and putting it on display for a history lesson. It is simply about how the most played-out, dusty gags in the book still shine like new in the expert hands of Irwin (first of Ringling Brothers, then The Pickle Family Circus) and Shiner (a longtime Cirque de Soleil veteran), whose collective sustained excellence in the realm of physical comedy is so divine it may qualify them for deification.
One cannot watch the putty-faced Irwin, sporting a brutal toupee and tattered jacket, slide his lips above Chicklet-like teeth while mugging shamelessly without thinking, "This guy won the Tony for Virginia Woolf?" Similarly, one is unable to see Shiner's heartbreaking hobo, blinking very real tears from his eyes as an imagined lover made of garbage caresses his forlorn face, without thinking, "This guy didn't win the Tony for Virginia Woolf?" Their ability to defy and exceed expectations simultaneously is the magic trick that dazzles most, and lingers. Or, more accurately, haunts. It will be difficult to see another spaghetti fiasco or simple hat trick anytime soon without pining for the pair after.
For this new collaboration, Irwin and Shiner say goodbye to Fool Moon veterans The Red Clay Ramblers and welcome chanteuse Nellie McKay and her charming band, who shuffle in late to the performance in just the way clowns looking for improv material love.
McKay must have been genetically engineered under an oyster shell on New Orleans' Frenchman Street before being released into the wild. There's no other way her shtick--which includes worn-in vintage slip dresses, messy retro updos pinned with fake flowers, and baffling non sequiturs cooed over the strings of a ukulele—would work as well if there weren't a bizarre sense of busker authenticity about the singer-songwriter, who fits perfectly into Old Hat's vaudeville vibe. As composer and vocalist of the night's musical interludes, which break up each scene, McKay's work is witty, bright, and gloriously inappropriate. Her songs range from 50s-esque love ballads to smoky blues jammouts, and cover subject matter like gentrification in mid-town Manhattan ("Bo-de-ga!") and the sadness that is feminism (the tongue-in-cheek "Mother of Pearl"). A comedienne and Broadway veteran herself (having played Polly to acclaim in 2006's Three Penny Opera revival), McKay is an ideal unofficial cast member, and does a sly job making patter with, and poking fun at, "the boys." She's even the one who motivates their biggest new trick: speech. Urged by McKay, coquettish behind her piano, to break their silence, Shiner goes right for the Hamlet. He doesn't get far, and is in direct competition with Irwin's increasingly throaty rendition of "Oklahoma!," meant to win over the girl with the flower in her hair as well. Soon Hamlet and Curly, lobbing newfound globs of speech like spitballs, have spun out of control, and all that can be done to pacify everyone is tap dance.
It's a great gag, the speaking, and a natural evolution from their mute Fool Moon. The same can be said about the entirety of Old Hats. But Irwin and Shiner don't need words here, and do their brightest work without it. Silence is golden. Let two kings of the craft keep it, unadorned.