Eddie Izzard, a transvestite English comedian who adroitly melds non sequiturs with rapid-fire delivery, has a definite talent for getting his audience to stretch its mental muscles. Opening night of “Dress to Kill,” after a sold-out San Francisco run and handful of West Hollywood previews, was packed with Hollywood brass, suggesting it’s just a matter of time until Izzard signs a megabuck film or TV deal. One way or the other, the Izzard has landed.
Izzard’s first gag, of course, is his appearance. But the joke isn’t that he’s wearing mascara, pancake makeup, a Chinese-style smock, polyvinyl trousers and high-heel sandals. No, the joke is that his transvestism has shockingly little to do with his routine, which zigs and zags from the secret life of squirrels to colonialism to Hitler’s honeymoon to the construction of Stonehenge to Scooby Doo to how Engelbert Humperdinck chose his stage name. And that’s just a bit of the ground Izzard covers.
His real achievement is his mastery of rhythm, which serves to transform Izzard and transport audiences. Hear him riff on the pop singer Humperdinck’s name, wondering if earlier incarnations were discarded. “Senglebert Bunderkink?” “Dinglebert Dingadonk?”
It’s hard not to roar when Izzard puts things that way, but it’s all just warmup for the false announcement that Humperdinck has died. Izzard seesaws between bringing his audiences unfortunate news and then dispelling it. And each time, the crowd goes with the comedian, taking a cerebral roller coaster ride.
He manages only average imitations (with the exception of his spot-on James Mason) and contorts his body halfheartedly. Also, he manages to crack up people even with ostensibly unfunny subjects, such as with Hitler.
Two acts of standup could be considered a bit much, and it certainly seems so as the second half begins. (A routine about the discovery of the Heimlich maneuver is a dud.) But soon Izzard is top form again, parodying Merchant/Ivory-type films. “What is it, Sebastian? I’m moving matches around,” he says stiffly. It doesn’t sound that funny, but when Izzard expresses it, you can’t help but howl.