Doug Skinner and Bill Irwin in The Harlequin Studies(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Doug Skinner and Bill Irwin in The Harlequin Studies
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
One of the more laughable, as opposed to risible, images of the past few weeks is Richard Avedon's portrait of Bill Irwin in the New Yorker's September 8 issue.

The photograph -- Irwin looking inconsolably sad in white clown outfit and partial white face -- has the misfortune to represent both men's drawbacks. Avedon has long seemed unable to satisfy himself until he's thumbed through his contact sheets and found the one picture where the person who's faced his camera has dropped every vestige of well being. Irwin, for his part, has become increasingly mannered since 1987's playful, buoyant, and altogether charming Regard of Flight. It's as if his early success convinced him that he was terribly important to the continuing tradition of commedia dell'arte and he therefore decided to forgo the insouciance that marked his initial contributions in order to meet a newly conferred obligation to posterity. Since both Irwin and Avedon often give off the air of concerned artists at work, their collaborative depiction of the unhappy clown seemed intended to conjure the spirit of Antoine Watteau and Walt Kuhn, both of whom occasionally took clowns as meaty subject matter. Unfortunately, the fancy snapshot is imbued more with the bathos of Walter Keane and his big-eyed waifs.

In retrospect, the off-putting photo might be viewed as a harbinger of The Harlequin Studies in that the kick-off entry of the Signature Theatre Company season devoted to Irwin is a disappointment -- to put it mildly. Written and directed by Irwin, it's intended to be a semi-spoof lecture on the history of the title character's origins and hallmark traits with moving, even acrobatic, illustrations by a cast of supplementary Harlequins and Harlequinade stock figures. It is that, but it's also humorless, forced, phony and, more depressingly, seems to come entirely from Irwin's head and from nowhere else in his limber frame. The piece's very title, whether or not it's meant as slyly ironic, reiterates Irwin's implied championship of the clown tradition to which he wants everyone to understand he's adding his name.

In the opening third of Irwin's 75-minute Harlequin retrospective, he and longtime collaborator Doug Skinner along with a handful of cooperative players (Rocco Sisto, Paxton Whitehead, and others) tumble from false-backed steamer trunks and through a series of sketches meant to explain the evolution of Harlequin. In one skit, where Harlequin taunts an old man with a cane, the slapstick that the perennial character typically wields is introduced. Another routine explicates the guileful servant-foolish master theme that Irwin maintains is common to Harlequin scenes. This sequence is enlivened by gymnasts John Oyzon, Andrew Pacho, and Steven T. Williams, who seem to be leaping from their own invisible trampolines.

What doesn't work here, despite how hard he's working, is Irwin. To be sure, he has astonishing control over his body. Somewhere in his endless gyrations throughout the brief evening, his torso and legs fleetingly take on an "S" shape, and it's something to see. Too much of the time, though, he's just miming and mugging with a fair amount of moue-ing thrown in, none of it to convincing comic effect. He gives the impression that he's chosen to show us what Harlequin does and not who Harlequin is, what human emotions lie beneath his supple exterior.

In the long sketch called "Harlequin and His Master Wed," which fills -- or bloats -- the play's final two-thirds, Irwin at one point makes a heart shape of his hands to indicate incipient love for a nubile lady, but heart is precisely what the routine routine lacks. Irwin as Harlequin, Whitehead as the obtuse Pantaloon, Sisto as the greedy father of a marriageable daughter, and Marin Ireland as the unhappy miss move effortfully through an attenuated example of a typical Harlequinade. During it, Irwin spends an inordinate amount of time dressing up a coat rack and wooing it as if it were a fashionable and haughty lady. Also, he and Pantaloon have trouble setting a table with a recalcitrant table linen, and Harlequin ever so slowly gets through to the doleful young woman for whom he discovers an affection. Even with Doug Skinner's silent film score tinkling in the background, none of this raises more than an occasional titter from the patrons. How lithe Irwin is, a blank-faced observer might think, and yet how incessantly unengaging.

Paxton Whitehead, Bill Irwin, and Rocco Sistoin The Harlequin Studies(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Paxton Whitehead, Bill Irwin, and Rocco Sisto
in The Harlequin Studies
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
For the record: While Irwin purports to be giving a light survey of Harlequin's history, he doesn't do so with particular accuracy. Harlequin is the English adaptation of the seminal Italian commedia dell'arte character Arlecchino, beloved for the subversive behavior he displayed right under his thick-headed master's nose. In other words, he stood for the revenge of the oppressed, always a favored type of the underclasses. But when the English appropriated Arlecchino in the 18th century, he rose in rank to become a swain who set his cap for Pantaloon's daughter Columbine while Pantaloon's servant -- now called Pierrot -- did bumpkin duty. Since Irwin doesn't recognize the Italy-to-England sea change and instead chooses to conflate Arlecchino and Harlequin, it might be said that he's really offering The Arlecchino Studies.

Of course, Irwin isn't required in a piece of this sort to be picayune about history but, if he had been, he might have found more inspiring source material. Those who admired Irwin when he first made his mark might wonder whether he now allows himself room for inspiration. Interestingly, he did what was perhaps his best recent stage work last year when he replaced Bill Pullman in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Playing a weak man smitten with the eponymous animal, Irwin -- whose pliant face seems never to have fully formed -- understood and conveyed the part's intricacies. The actor was, of course, delivering lines he didn't write and taking someone else's direction; on the current evidence, he's spinning artistic wheels, having dedicated much time to contemplating the place of the clown in society without realizing that the essential appeal of a clown is a now-joyous, now-aching humanity.

In their stylized emoting alongside Irwin, Whitehead and Sisto huff and puff with professional dedication but, understandably, they don't seem to be having much fun. Ireland as Columbine (although she's not identified that way in the program) is fine until she opens her mouth to defy her father and sounds more shrewish than she ought. After pairing with Irwin at the top of the show, Skinner repairs to the piano, where, backed by musicians David Gold and Sean McMorris, he renders his original and jaunty underscoring. Catherine Zuber's Harlequin and Harlequinade costumes are attractive without being surpassingly delightful. Douglas Stein's set is self-effacing, which may not be the best approach; likewise James Vermeulen's lighting. Lorenzo Pisoni, who did some jaw dropping exercises himself at the Public in last season's As You Like It, devised the highly effective acrobatics.

At the end of the day, The Harlequin Studies is much too studied.