LA JOLLA — Bill Irwin versus commedia dell' arte. It's a match--or will be, once Irwin gets his game down.
The play is "The Three Cuckolds" at the La Jolla Playhouse, Leon Katz's adaptation of a classic commedia scenario, with additional monkeyshines by Irwin and Michael Greif who also co-directed the show.
It went like clockwork Sunday night and the audience at the playhouse's second stage, the Warren Theater, couldn't have enjoyed it more. This viewer couldn't have admired it more, which is not quite the same thing.
Irwin is up to something interesting here. He is reinventing the great commedia clown Arlecchino (Harlequin, if you will), along Irwin lines. This is not hubris. Arlecchino requires a master of physical comedy, and Irwin is that for sure. He's as quick as Casper the Ghost and as malleable as Plastic Man. At one point his Arlecchino jumps into a big wicker laundry basket and slowly sinks below its horizon as if walking downstairs. Irwin makes us see those three flights of steps, obviously designed by M. C. Escher.
Irwin also possesses another quality required in a great Arlecchino: mystery. We don't know quite who he is, and he isn't too sure either. He would like to be a gleeful sprite, like the Arlecchino in the Piccolo Teatro's "Servant of Two Masters" at the Olympic Arts Festival. But he darkly suspects himself of being the worst thing an American can be: a loser. He strikes out with all the girls--which, in this show, takes talent--and when it is time to have dinner --or, in this show, to do brunch--he gets the door in his face.
A minute later he is invited inside, but the damage to his pride has been done and he rides off on his scooter to his next disaster, all dignity. Harlequins have feelings too, you know.
This is excellent, as are Irwin's ecstatic piercing of the feminine mystique when he assumes the guise of someone's gooney sister and his vexation when he develops a split personality and sees the other half get the girl.
So, what's the complaint? Only that Irwin, like Arlecchino, so often seems to be standing outside his performance looking in. Not only do we see the wheels go around, we are meant to do so, as if Irwin were conducting a critique of pure shtick. This is commedia anatomized--even indicted, although the charge isn't quite clear. It's a brilliant performance and it's obviously the kind of performance that Irwin's genius compels him toward. But it makes it difficult for the viewer--this one, anyway--to lose himself in the madness of the moment.
Happily, Irwin surrounds himself with a cast of traditional commedia types, who don't have a second thought between them. They run on pure unleaded lust and tonight is the night, if only a certain wretched husband can be tempted out of the house. A round robin of cuckoldry sends Husband A tiptoeing over to Wife B's house, while Husband B goes sneaking over to Wife C's house and Husband C dashes out to buy a bag of marital aids. The fun here is sufficiently fast, randy and outrageous.
My favorite of the wives was Deborah Rush as Wife A, the beguiling Cintia who reads Harlequin romances and can't make out a thing without her glasses. My favorite of the husbands was Patrick O'Brien as Husband C, the dried-up Zanni, who owes a lot to Scrooge McDuck. But this is not to slight the other spouses--Dann Florek's Coviello, for instance, with his unstable hairpiece; or Amy Aquino's Franceschina, with her line of rich manure about "taking responsibility" for one's letches. They are cartoons but a portrait of modern marriage does emerge.
Jill Moon's cut-out set, Richard Riddell's hard, bright lighting and, especially Deborah Dryden's costumes help to fuel the fun. Scrooge McDuck's magenta house coat is particularly fetching. When Irwin manages to fuse his kind of self-scrutiny with commedia's pandemonium, "The Three Cuckolds" will blow off the roof.
'THE THREE CUCKOLDS' Leon Katz's play, after a commedia dell' arte scenario at the La Jolla Playhouse. Adaptation Bill Irwin and Michael Greif. Directed by Irwin and Greif. Sets Jill Moon. Costumes Deborah Dryden. Lighting Richard Riddell. Music Michael S. Roth. Sound Roth and Rick Bidlock. Assistant director Beth Schecter. Casting Stanley Soble, Jasson La Padura, Richard Pagano, Sharon Bialy. With Amy Aquino, Ralph Drischell, Dann Florek, Bill Irwin, Kristine Nielsen, Patrick O'Brien, Douglas Roberts, Deborah Rush. Musicians Rick Bidlock, Eric Johnson, Michael S. Roth, Jay Sacks. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closes Aug. 2. Tickets $14.50-$18.50. Warren Theater, Rupertus Way, UC San Diego (619) 452-3960.