Physical comedy's alive and well with Bill Irwin. Latest performance piece tweaks high-tech

Some say when the talkies made silent films obsolete, they also put an end to physical comedy. Bill Irwin single-handedly has revived this forgotten pleasure in his new piece, ``Largely/ New York,'' scheduled a pathetic four times in the New Contemporary Masters series several weeks ago at City Center. For one delirious hour not a word was spoken but a lot was said, and the audience was overjoyed. Remote-controlling people Bill Irwin plays the Post-Modern Hoofer, a character indistinguishable from the clown who starred in his former pieces. Clad in baggy pants, shirt, and vest, with top hat, white cane, and an assortment of inoperable shoes, he's still gamely coping with the malevolent appliances of modern times. Now he's hoping to subdue them with a remote control device that works everything from sound, lights, and curtains to those most bewildering of all amenities, people. That is, if he can only figure out the instruction book. Life is one big TV set

The essence of Irwin's character is his inability to get other people to tune him in. He's incurably lonely, and after many existential adventures in earlier shows, he now views life as one big TV set full of possibilities. By changing channels he can put himself in a different environment, switch off anything that gets too stressful, even create the illusion that he's winning friends. Like TV channels, the people he encounters in ``Largely'' come in separate, unrelated units that gradually begin to mix and overlap as Irwin becomes more heavily embroiled with them.

There's a dancer (Meg Eginton), whom he discovers practicing and instantly falls in love with. Irwin tries to get her attention but she's too intent on her dancing to notice him. He finally starts to copy her moves, improvising on them with glimmerings of Merce Cunningham (Eginton danced with Cunningham for three years), and she pragmatically uses him to support her balances and falls, but remains mostly indifferent.

He runs across two coolest-of-the-cool break dancers, Leon Chesney and John Christian. He's more successful in making contact with them, slipping almost without realizing it from his own fractured Charleston-cum-soft-shoe into their snaky glides and atomized popping. Since they're always looking for new moves, they eventually pick up on his dance too.

During a moment when the stage is empty, a backstage door opens, and a character in academic gown, hood, and mortarboard (Jeff Gordon) sticks his head in. He seems to be looking for a misplaced graduation ceremony. Deciding it must be around here somewhere, he summons 13 cohorts, all dressed in academic regalia and hornrimmed glasses just like Bill Irwin's. This bunch does everything all alike, though they come in all sizes and shapes, and will follow the nearest authority figure - to the brink of destruction if need be. They appear alternately in punk attire, perhaps representing their students, to swarm across the stage and fall down unheeded, one by one. (Kimi Okada choreographed the ensemble moves and processions.)

Relentlessly pursuing any moving target, real-life videomaker Dennis Diamond and his crew thread their way through crowds and private scenes, whatever happens to be going on. The minute anyone finds the camera turned on him or her, he drops whatever he's doing and turns on his best performance charm. Of course, Irwin soon discovers this route to instant popularity and thinks it's the answer to his problems.

In a scene of inspired man-versus-machine lunacy, he grapples with camera, tripod and cable, trying to get himself in focus and see himself on the monitor at the same time.

From then on, it's only a question of time till the technology swallows him. This ultimate consummation is reached just when he's finally figures out how to do a duet with his own image on the screen.

Trapped inside the box, he yells silently for help, and is rescued by Eginton and the breakers, who improvise a fixit scheme with a vacuum cleaner. Getting a man out of a television set is just another blip in a bizarre world to them, though, and after the four of them share a dance together, they wander off, leaving Irwin alone again.

As the piece ends, he's standing upstage, gazing with studied reserve that masks an incipient terror, at a floor strewn with fallen bodies.

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