Unforgettable New Herzog Play; Irwin’s ‘Old Hats’: Review

A red velvet curtain rises on two tramps struggling against the vacuum force of a raging storm projected on the giant screen behind them.

Battling cosmic forces beyond them is one of the things that make Bill Irwin’s collaborations with David Shiner so much more than mere clowning around. That’s not meant to take anything away from the clowning itself, which is the irresistible core of “Old Hats,” their new off-Broadway show.

As demonstrated by the duo’s sophisticated interplay with Wendall K. Harrington’s dizzying projections, the technology has improved since their “Fool Moon” first cracked up Broadway 20 years ago. And singer Nellie McKay, whose poniard lyrics are sheathed in velvet melodies, is a brilliant addition. As is Tina Landau’s unifying direction.

But “Old Hats” remains the mostly silent testament of two vaudevillians to the curative power of slapstick over the winter blues. It’s sheer pleasure.

In one sketch, a top hat comes to life, rolling across shoulder blades and flipping ever-higher in the air before landing snugly atop the head. Or not, as sometimes is the case.

Pill Blues

At a commuter train station, two men trade the pills that alleviate their gray-flannel ills (“Fool Moon” came before Viagra, here given its due). In yet another skit, Irwin appears in drag (with great pegs, I might add) as the jealous assistant to Shiner’s lascivious magician. Flowers bloom from handkerchiefs and a fetching audience member will be sawn in half.

The final playlet brings more audience members to the stage to “make” a cowboy movie under Shiner’s tutelage. It’s goofy, and it’s sublime.

Through April 14 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: ****

Herzog’s ‘Belleville’

Amy Herzog’s “Belleville,” at the New York Theatre Workshop is also a little old fashioned: It has the outline of a classic thriller and the suspense of a watch stem wound to unnerving tension.

Underlying the tale, however, is the keenness of observation about how relationships unravel that give Herzog’s plays -- most recently, “4000 Miles” and “The Great God Pan” -- a kind of documentary power.

“Belleville” is otherwise unlike her other plays, and yet its bleak portrait of young people missing connections is more disturbing than any of the foul-mouthed brats in current shows (“Really, Really” and “Clive”) on similar themes.

Zack (Greg Keller) and Abby (Maria Dizzia) are an American couple in their 20s living in the working-class Paris district of the title. He’s a research doctor working on pediatric AIDS. She teaches yoga.

Their comfortable, sky-lit apartment (nicely rendered by Julia C. Lee and exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton) is a cut above student housing, though not by much.

Abby arrives home early on a day her class is canceled for want of customers, only to stumble upon Zack watching violent porn on his laptop. What he’s doing home besides getting off is the loose thread that, once tugged, unravels their relationship beyond repair.

Younger Couple

Herzog contrasts Zack and Abby with Amina and Alioune (Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon), the French-African couple who manage the building and, though younger than the Americans, are all business and already have started a family.

Under Anne Kauffman’s gradually terrifying push-me, pull-you direction, Zack and Abby’s spiral is at once infuriating and heartbreaking. Keller and Dizzia have an easy intimacy that turns sinister as the lies they’ve constructed in place of an actual life come into ever-sharper focus.

The final scene, in which Amina and Alioune clean out the apartment, may strike some as superfluous. But as Abby and Zack are easily erased from the premises, as if from the world, I found it devastating.

Through March 31 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., East Village. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.nytw.org. Rating: *****

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Amanda Gordon’s New York Scene and Zinta Lundborg’s interview with Jonas Kaufmann.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.