A pudgy, big-eyed comedian with a wayward mouth glides onto the stage, looking for all the world like a younger Ozzy Osbourne, although what really catches our attention is the frosted hair, blue eyeliner and red nail polish, worn along with a woman's Chinese silk tunic and black PVC pants. Perhaps a bit "delicate" for a male standup, but hey, he's British, so anything goes, right? And besides, it all hangs pretty good on him in a cozy, frumpy way. If most comedians seem to regard their audiences as either potential firing squads or potential kidnap victims, our entertainment for the night looks about the room with jovial familiarity, as though he's on a nodding acquaintance with everyone in the house. And when he opens his mouth and most of what comes out seems to be uhs and ums, we don't get annoyed but immediately accept him as a regular guy, a bloke named Eddie Izzard.
On paper, Dress To Kill is, like the bumblebee, a proposition that science tells us can't fly. Izzard does nothing but talk all night, apparently free-associating - in maddeningly incomplete sentences - whatever pops into his head. Two and a half hours of incomplete sentences. Yet fly Izzard does, hopscotching from topic to topic like a vagrant browsing the stacks of the public library, here offering wistful musings on genocide and imperialism ("Hitler never played Risk"), there tossing out shrewd analyses of his own heterosexual transvestism, elsewhere hilariously spinning off the movies, beginning with a retelling of Star Wars that becomes increasingly cockneyized:
You have the force, Luke.
How do you know?
Some bloke told me.
Oh, that's all right, then.
Likewise, Izzard breezily dismisses British cinema as a series of brittle, cerebral dramas, filled with terse scenes that always seem to end with the line, "I think you'd better go now." He contrasts these with American films, all reduced here to a single scene between two men who angrily gesticulate at one another while proclaiming, "You fuck with me, I'll kill you! You fuck with me, I'll kill you! You're my brother, Mikey, I love you!" before taking off in a car and shooting at anything that strikes their fancy.
Now Izzard merges the film styles of our two cultures in a sendup of The Great Escape, in which he notes how the story's British POWs clandestinely sewed together authentic-looking French clothes for their getaway, while the camp's lone American, Steve McQueen, simply disguised himself as . . . an "American," in jeans and turtleneck sweater. The bit concludes with darker ruminations about the uneven relationship between the faded empire and the new superpower. "At the end of the movie, all the British got caught and shot in the head, but McQueen got away on a motorbike to Switzerland," Izzard complains. "What kind of message was that for a kid growing up in Britain?"
Inevitably, perhaps, it is this foreigner's view of America - a view that many of us may not accept, because it won't cede to us the heroic status we've grown accustomed to bestowing upon ourselves all these years - that most vexes our national narcissism. Izzard has wicked fun playing up the dichotomy between a U.K. devastated by fighting Germany alone for two years and optimistic, fresh-faced American hubris, boiling down a historical moment into an exchange between two blokes.
Bloody hell, mate, I'm knackered - where the fuck have you been?
Oh, well, I had some things I had to take care of first. But now I'm gonna build some things here, and move some stuff over there . . .
What makes Izzard's merrily jaundiced takes on our country so compelling is the fact that he speaks in the idiom and cadences of the British worker - someone we accept as credible - and not in the stuffy pronouncements of some anti-Yank toff. That, and the fact that he's clearly fascinated by an America that bans smoking in its bars while not caring bugger-all about basic health care, helps us to rediscover, for better or worse, our own country.
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More than this, Izzard's fractured history lessons (which include jabs at pre-Romano-Britain druids, the Church of England and Massachusetts pilgrims) flatter us with the assumption that not only do we know something about the past but that we actually care about it. Izzard's brand of playful intelligence is unfortunately absent on most American comedy stages, reflecting the fact that historical events usually interest us only when a conspiracy theory is attached to them or if they have served as the inspiration of a blockbuster movie.
Dress To Kill is self-directed, which may account for the show's length, but not for set designer Markus Maurette's unnecessarily arty stage, featuring an abstract sculpture and four Warholish serigraphs of Izzard, hanging upside down. (The effect is more gallery opening than standup comedy.) In any case, Izzard certainly does go out on a limb, sometimes doggedly repeating a joke until he's paid off with applause, other times risking the complete loss of his audience, as when he returns after the curtain to perform an encore - in French.
If the bits I've cited aren't recalled quite verbatim, that shouldn't make a difference, because Izzard changes his show every night, in keeping with his psychology of probing and riffing on his audiences' defenses. Part of his charm - and part of why Dress To Kill's two and a half hours aren't ruinously long - is his innate stage grace, his ability to deliver his material at his own pace while making recurring references (i.e., those smoke-free bars) seem delightful coincidences. Another plus is his refusal to play to his show's publicity buzz about his being a "transvestite comedian" (he wryly notes the French word for cross-dressing is pronounced like "travesty"); for one thing, this detail is almost beside the point: Izzard's attire and makeup wouldn't raise many eyebrows in most seaboard cities. (In this sense, he's merely dressed to maim.) But more important, Izzard is plainly enjoying himself, an experience that soon rubs off on even the most skeptical viewer.
Eddie Izzard should love L.A. It's his kind of town, after all, a place where a straight guy can put on makeup, wear women's clothes - and make fun of the place. This last part is especially important. Watching his show at San Francisco's Cable Car Theater, you got the feeling that his heart wasn't really into ribbing S.F., that he probably felt pretty damn comfortable there - and, of course, the last thing a satirist wants to feel is comfortable. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is the gold-leaf pinata at the end of every satirist's odyssey. After successful runs in New York, Toronto, Aspen and San Francisco, Eddie Izzard may well have reached the promised land.