Bri and Sheila, parents in their mid-thirties of a spastic ten-year-old child who cannot speak, think, stand, focus, or exert any motor control whatsoever, are playing one of their games — acid-sharp, truth-based living-room routines — to take the pain away, anesthetize the anger at God's bad joke. The child is called Joe, or, especially by her mother — in a mingling of love and irony — Joe Egg.
"Few weeks later," [says Sheila in the play], "they called me to collect Joe from the hospital . . ."
"Vell, mattam," [says Bri in a thick British-music-hall German accent], "zis baby off yours has now been soroughly tested and ve need ze bets razzer battly so it's better you take her home. I sink I can promise she von't be any trouble. Keep her vell sedated you'll hartly know she'szere . . . "
"But doctor — "
"Did the needles make that scar on herhead? . . . "
"Ach, nein. Zis vos a little biopsy to take a sample of her brain tissue."
"That's a relief," [says Sheila]. "I thought at first you'd made a little hole in her skull to let the devil out."
"Sounds gut. Did you try it? . . . Ah! My colleague says ve don't do zat any more. (Shrugs.) Pity! Vell — if you eggscuse me . . . "
"But - Doctor, Doctor - "
"Mattam, let me try and tell you vot your daughter is like. Do you know what I mean ven I say your daughter vos a wegetable?"
As one can see, this is material that treads — tiptoes across — a very fine tightrope indeed between agony and idiocy, tragedy and hilarity. The play, Peter Nichols' 1967 A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, is one of the most wrenching dramas of our time, as anyone can tell you who was both gutted and exalted by the Roundabout Theatre Company's stunning 1985 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway renewal of it directed by Arvin Brown, with Stockard Channing as Sheila and Jim Dale as Bri. Today, in a Roundabout production directed by Laurence Boswell, there is another New York presentation of this play-that-will-not-die, and once again a British funnyman, outrageous Eddie Izzard, frequently tagged as "the bloke in a dress," though not here, not now, is its Bri, opposite Britain's Victoria Hamilton in her American debut as Sheila — two hellishly tricky roles, indeed. In 1998 in a solo show called, well, Dress to Kill, Izzard expounded, jaw thrust out, eyes shooting fire, all over the Westbeth stage, on virtually everything the human mind could think of at that moment. No script. He has also, in London, done David Mamet's The Cryptogram. "It was . . . it was. . . cryptic," Izzard says over the blower from that city, where yet more recently he and Victoria Hamilton have co-starred in the Joe Egg that's here at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre through May 25.
"I kind of like to get in and get out," says Izzard. "This one's only three months and can't be held over, but even three months is a long time, and there's always the question, Are you doing it just for the money?"
He couldn't have done Lenny, a couple of years ago on the West End — Julian Barry's play about Lenny Bruce — just for the money, and it was in fact that performance that reinforced Peter Nichols's longtime high regard of stand-up comedian Izzard's lightning-quick skills. "The truth is," Nichols says, "I always wanted Eddie to be in one of my plays. Then I saw him in Lenny. I had thought he would be a good actor, but not that good."
Shortly thereafter, Clive Owen, who was appearing with Victoria Hamilton in Joe Egg at the New Ambassadors Theatre in London, left the show to do a film (it is Owen as the tall, handsome valet around whom the movie Gosford Park revolves). "We were in a bit of a quandary," says Nichols — "and at that moment Eddie showed up. I was cock-a-hoop about this," which is to say the playwright thought it a very good idea.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is, to Izzard, "a great crossover for me. I was sort of weaned on comedy sketches" — starting as "a cocky kid with a lot of energy making people laugh" at the Sheffield University Student Union and then in Edinburgh Fringe festivals of the early eighties, which is where Nichols first saw him — "and this is a moving piece, with all this black comedy and this drama and this subject," the spastic child.
Ever known one, Eddie - child or adult?
"Not really. I do have a cousin who's physically disabled but not mentally disabled at all." Pause. "God knows which is harder." And no, Izzard hadn't done any research, going into hospital wards or any of that. "Because it was so quick. He [Owen] coming out, and me going in, late December 2001. We went straight to rehearsal, me and Victoria."
Eddie Izzard was born February 7, 1962, in Aden, Yemen, where his dad worked for British Petroleum, and grew up in Northern Ireland and South Wales. He was six when his mother died, a scar that's there to this day. In his one year at Sheffield University he studied accounting, chemistry and mathematics.
"That's probably the thing I can bring to this production," he says. "I've been trained wrong. Doing accounting at the university is not going to help you with drama. Hopefully I can bring something to it, since I don't know right from wrong."
What's Peter Nichols think of Izzard as Bri? "I think he's terrific. I think he's lovely in it." And not in a dress, the playwright underscores.
Glowing reviews of the London production have preceded the play's transfer here. "I really want it better than it was in London," Eddie Izzard says. "Me and Victoria want to see what we can pull out more." New York will be pulling along with you, chaps.