Taking its title from stage directions in “Waiting for Godot,” “All Wear Bowlers” tips its hat not only to Beckett but to Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Magritte. A vaudevillian riff on existential angst, this mostly silent piece showcases the precision-instrument performances of two intellectual clowns. Arthur Miller’s remark that “Godot” was “vaudeville at the edge of the cliff” is an apt description of this tragicomedy, although comparisons with its betters don’t hold up.
The show begins with an onstage screening of a silent film. Long shot: the classic Beckettian landscape of a road and a dead tree in the middle of nowhere. A tiny figure appears on a tree limb, jumps off to join another, both wearing bowlers.
Off they go, toward us, only to discover they are lost. The map they carry merely shows a road with an X on it and “you are here.”
The two characters discover they can jump onto the stage and back into the movie (their timing is astonishing), which underscores the differences between the two media.
Trey Lyford’s Wyatt R. Levine is a recognizable silent-film sad-sack, dependent and panicky but filled with hidden, helpless rage. Geoff Sobelle’s Earnest Matters is full of bravado, sputtering through his teeth, the equally recognizable let’s-keep-calm other half of the hapless duo.
The philosophic inquiries about the nature of reality and man’s place in the cosmos are complicated when the film burns up and the clowns find themselves thrust onto the stage. Desperate attempts to return to their world inside the screen reveal there is no exit.
There are lots of impressive and funny sleight-of-hand tricks (Sobelle is especially adept) with eggs and newspapers and pitchers of water — old-time clowning skills that slide into the surreal. Lyford is transformed into a scary dummy, mocking Sobelle’s ventriloquism, and there is a fascinating bit with a third bowler, creating the illusion of another person.
The plot, such as it is, is resolved when they finally return to the film and set off on the road again.
Since its brilliant debut at the Philadelphia Fringe in 2003, the show has been tinkered with, to its detriment. Sobelle (a member of Philly-based dance-clown-theater ensemble Pig Iron) and Lyford knock themselves out, but seem too focused on the demands of performance, letting the humanity leak out of the characters’ personalities. They are less distinct and developed, and their friendship less palpable and moving, with the result that we care less about them than the show needs us to.
Once we stop identifying with their predicament, “All Wear Bowlers” loses its profundity and becomes merely an expert clown show rather than a drama.