Comedies don’t get more heart-rending than “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” a 1967 play by Peter Nichols that feels new-born in this Broadway revival directed by Laurence Boswell. An import from the West End courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Co., with its London leads — the ferocious comic Eddie Izzard and the sublime Victoria Hamilton — making exceptional Broadway debuts, “Joe Egg” outstrips anything on a New York stage in its searing humor and wrenching emotional force. It manages to break your heart one minute and suffuse it with warmth the next, all while eliciting a stream of cathartic laughter.
More than three decades after it established Nichols as one of the most adventurous British playwrights of the post-Osbourne generation, “Joe Egg” is still bracing in its clear-eyed humanity and freedom from sentimentality. And if ever a play had good reason to be maudlin, this is it: “Joe Egg” depicts the brittle but deeply loving relationship between a young couple whose marriage has been tested in the most traumatic way. Their only child, now a girl of 12, was born with severe mental impairment; she can neither speak nor control her bodily functions.
But their attitude toward this misfortune is disarmingly irreverent — echoing Nichols’ approach to his potentially lachrymose subject matter. Bri (Izzard), a schoolteacher who seems to have an aversion to taking anything seriously, chats casually with little Joe, reacting to her vacant stare and muffled groans as if they conveyed the usual information. “Sat by the driver, did you?” “Saw the Christmas trees?” “And the shops lit up?” “What’d you say? Saw Jesus?” His wife, Sheila (Hamilton), merrily joins in the game: “She got a screw loose, dad?”
Their mordant joking may have begun as a defense mechanism against anguish, but it has become, touchingly, a way of animating their relationship to a child who cannot respond to normal stimuli. They express their love by creating imaginary personae for Joe, as they reveal in the extended vaudevillian sequence that interrupts the first act and evolves into an explosively funny dissection of fatuous medical and religious bureaucracy.
Stepping down from the set by Es Devlin, a detail-rich evocation of a neat but worn flat overgrown with greenery, which Sheila tends as lovingly as she does the rest of the family menagerie (which includes, as Bri resentfully informs us, cat, goldfish and budgerigar), they re-enact, with mockingly cheery exuberance, the sad history of Joe’s troubled birth and the events leading up to her diagnosis.
The sequence whiplashes from the bitterest humor (“Every cloud has a jet-black lining”) to almost unbearable poignancy (Sheila’s half-joking question to a priest: “D’you think the story of the Sleeping Beauty was about a spastic?” offered with a devastating smile). And the paradoxical effect of Nichols’ acknowledgment of artifice is not to expose the characters as fictional creations but to amplify their humanity. (Brecht be damned — the effect is anything but alienating.) It is as if Bri and Sheila are too honest, too real — and too exhausted by the demands of their daily struggles — to indulge any theatrical cant. They’ve got to tell it like it is, lay out the ugly, hilarious truth that simply can’t fit inside the structure of a straightforward play.
Of course, without actors who can live up to the demands it places on them, the conceit might seem arch, or at least dated. But in Izzard and, most wondrously, Hamilton, Nichols has a pair of performers who naturally light up a stage, to be sure, but remain deeply inside the skins of the characters even when the characters shed the skin of the play.
Izzard, best known as a standup comedian, is brilliant at conveying Bri’s snarky, juvenile selfishness and at impersonating various doltish doctors in the music hall history of Joe’s arrival. But the relentless irreverence cannot entirely mask the hollowness at Bri’s core, and this, too, Izzard communicates in the moments when Bri lapses into brooding quiet. Convinced by the hand he’s been dealt that God is a “sort of manic depressive rugby footballer,” Bri has long since closed himself off from hope that things will ever get better for Joe.
Sheila, on the other hand, never stops hoping. She’s a glowing embodiment of the life force: As Bri plainly tells us in an early monologue, she “embraces all living things.” The role provides a virtually limitless vehicle for an actress of humor, charm and sensitivity (Stockard Channing won a Tony in the 1983 Broadway revival, also a Roundabout Theater presentation), and Hamilton has immense reserves of all three. She gives a performance of such bountiful warmth and humanity that it seems to create a visible aura of beneficence around her. And when Hamilton’s Sheila nakedly offers up her simple faith to the audience — “I think where there’s life, there’s hope, don’t you?” — with an apologetic, almost sheepish smile, and just a hint of desperation in her eyes, it’s a moment so moving that it seems to raise a blister on the heart.
The play’s tragic core lies in the fundamentally antithetical nature of Bri’s and Sheila’s attitudes toward life. In the second act, Bri will go to terrible lengths to make circumstances conform to his despairing view. He thinks the only freedom for them is in freedom from hope, and he knows there’s only one way Sheila can be divested of her faith that somehow Joe will get better.
Here Nichols pushes his remarkable play even further beyond the limits you’d expect it to observe: It blends tragedy and farce as Bri attempts to enact his desperate plan while maneuvering around the intrusive presence of his friend Freddie (Michael Gaston, nicely blustery but with a too-hearty British accent); his prim wife, Pam (the exquisitely pinched Margaret Colin); and his own mother (Dana Ivey, with an accent that wanders as widely as does her character’s meddling mind).
The play may end on a despairing note, but it is really Sheila’s view that triumphs. The bleak humor and sadness pass away, and what remains is Nichols’ deeply affecting portrait of a mother’s love enduring — even thriving — in the face of extraordinary misfortune. When we watch Hamilton’s Sheila gaze with uncomplicated adoration at her daughter (effectively played by Madeleine Martin), this extraordinary actress makes us believe Joe is not a burden to her mother but a source of pure joy. To answer Sheila’s question: Life is what it is, but we come away from “Joe Egg” convinced that where there’s love, there’s hope.