Rubbery of face and physique and sometimes of writing, Irwin has repeatedly evidenced a fascination with the history of clowning. In the first offering in this retrospective season, The Harlequin Studies, he took great pains to call attention to his place in the tradition he reveres; he also lent to his portrayal aspects of the sad clown, a figure to which he has been annoyingly partial. (Richard Avedon's New Yorker photograph heralding the engagement underscored both Irwin's and Avedon's sentimental interest, although the sorrow reflected in the image seemed to have more in common with Walter Keane's weepy-eyed subjects than with Harlequin.)
In creating Mr. Fox: A Rumination, Irwin has again riffled through the pages of show business past. This time, however, when he tells the tale of a renowned melancholy performer, he doesn't simply scratch the surface while adding his interpolations; rather, he has found unusual substance in the story of George Washington Lafayette Fox (1825-1877). The snapshot of another anguished face gracing the Playbill cover isn't affectation, it's emblematic of Fox's troubled life as the man who made his Humpty Dumpty figure world famous and, for some time, widely influential. Fox was known to have had mental problems late in his career; his deterioration was sometimes attributed to the toxic effect of the lead contained in the whiteface makeup he consistently applied.
As he often has done in the past, Irwin also plays in white face (and in Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's stunning white costumes under James Vermeulen's lights). He begins slapping on the makeup immediately after he and his fellow actors enter for a few moments of a bowing ritual. Then he launches into Fox's tale. He introduces the all-but-forgotten 19th-century headliner as extraordinarily skilled as well as loyal to brother Charlie Fox (Geoff Hoyle), labile to assistant George Topack (Marc Damon Johnson), increasingly fractious to wife Mattie (Bianca Amato), and alternatively demanding of and obsequious to theatrical managers Lingard (Richard Poe), Daly (Peter Maloney), and Tyler (Jason Butler Harner). As years pass and prosceniums are played within, Fox attempts to retain his on-stage prowess but eventually loses it to bad business decisions and creeping depression. In other words, Humpty Dumpty has a great fall.
In a series of scenes that range from the astonishing to the desolate, Fox conquers audiences and vanquishes himself. Along the way, Irwin offers a series of clown turns, including a Humpty Dumpty routine. Everything is executed with his standard high polish. In one sequence, he and Hoyle do the old two-people-pretending-to-be-one skit wherein Irwin manipulates a pair of shoes while Hoyle, gotten up in a concealing coat, supplies the arm gestures. In another, Hoyle does a three-legged dance of delicate delight. (He choreographed it himself.) Still, it might be said that Irwin as Fox eventually spirals out of control in an anguishing scene that suggests the mad King Lear morphing into his fool.
Here and there in Mr. Fox: A Rumination are moments of airy entertainment. There are even some moments when farce seems the order of the day. Actually, farce is strongly hinted at in Christine Jones's ingenious set, which summons up the back stage area of a vaudeville house and features nine doors that are slammed again and again. (Doors that slam well on stage are often hard to find; these are exemplary, for which a nod to the staff carpenters.) The effect is deliberately misleading; Irwin's play is, if anything, anti-farce. It's the ugly underside of farce. Irwin sees little that's funny in Fox's life and doesn't want the audience to see anything funny in it, either. Fox, he's saying, may have been amusing when he wanted to be but, oh, what was roiling within him! "I cry to be present," Fox says -- and he means it.
That revealing exclamation may also be a tip-off to Irwin's view of himself. Surely, in choosing to put forward what he surmises about G.L. Fox, he's confessing something of his own concerns; after all, he might have selected any one of perhaps hundreds of clowns to honor, yet he's shaped a story about a particularly unfortunate one. There's no reason to believe that Fox actually said much of what Irwin attributes to him, such as the comment "I am ready," which is presented as a kind of performer's credo. At the end of the play, when Irwin has removed his makeup and is addressing the puzzled Topack, he says: "Jealousy is my love, Topack. It's every performer's love. It's a rage of jealousy, Topack, and it's painful to behold, isn't it? And there is our legacy, too."
As he plumbs the darker recesses of his actor's soul, Irwin is helped by director James Houghton and by seven performers who don't have quite as much stage time as the leading player but must be as busy when they're off stage as when they're on. Shuffling off one stylish Elizabeth Caitlin Ward costume to don another, painting and re-painting their faces to show up as Pantaloon or Columbine or an Old Lady, they're lively and commanding. Geoff Hoyle gets to shine as the second banana. Marc Damon Johnson is nimble without being sycophantic as a black man learning the tricks of the trade. Bianca Amato is a lithe Columbine and then gathers up into anger for a terrific scene as Mattie. Jason Butler Harner's Harlequin is well realized and contrasts with his harsher characterization of the conniving Daly when he, Peter Maloney, and Richard Poe as other connivers cut Fox down to sighs.
Mr. Fox: A Rumination is Irwin's statement of purpose, and it's a fine one. The artist is so forthright here that even his face seems to have been transformed, his jaw more prominently squared. In skeletal white face and with black lines around his eyes to conjure tears, his doleful visage takes on the weight and form he seems only to have aspired to in the past. For all of Fox's tarnished moods, Irwin's is a sterling performance in a sterling play.