New York

Eddie Izzard; “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

Westbeth Theatre/Jane Street Theatre

It is an odd, contradictory New York moment. On the one hand there’s a city government more skillfully puritanical than any in boomer memory (plus, farther off, a Supreme Court that considers the NEA decency statute no infringement on speech). On the other, trannies triumphant.

Who knows when transvestite stage performance first came to New York (these days, though, I bet you could look it up), and given its earlier blossomings, I’m not even sure it’s reached some new phase. But it’s certainly doing fine. I refer to a pair of simultaneous successes this spring, a stroll apart in the West Village: Dress to Kill, the one-man show by the English comic Eddie Izzard, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the rock musical cowritten by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, and performed by them, Miriam Shor, and Trask’s fine band, Cheater. Both star a man in women’s clothes (actually Hedwig features both a man in women’s clothes and a woman in men’s clothes, and as for Izzard, “I wear my clothes,” he says. “I fuckin’ bought them”), and both have played lengthily to happy crowds.

You may say: But it’s the Village f’god’s sake. A block or three from Christopher Street. Consider, then, these shows’ press—clipping packets (consider also that both have such packets—Pyramid this ain’t): for Izzard, items from the New York dailies plus the New York Observer, The New Yorker (a 5,000-word profile), Newsday, Time Out, and Vanity Fair; for Hedwig, from the Times and the Post, New York and The New Yorker, Newsday, Paper, Time and Time Out, Variety, The Village Voice, of course (several times), and even the Wall Street Journal and USA Today (which comes the closest to bad press in all this by stating, dully, “The smutty jokes aren’t good”). Hedwig won an Obie and the Outer Critics Circle Award; Izzard has roles in Todd Haynes’ forthcoming film Velvet Goldmine, on ’70s glamrock, and in The Avengers, alongside Sean Connery and Uma Thurman. It seems that trannies rule.

Invidious comparison comes easily to me but each of these shows was strong, and strongly unlike the other. If I confess a favorite—Izzard—I would also allow that Hedwig is in sexual-politick terms more ambitious, or at least more obviously so. Izzard doesn’t so much downplay sexual difference as make it everyday: he’s the transvestite next door, or, in his words, the “successful executive transvestite,” or “a male tomboy, running, jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup while I’m up there. . . .” (He also tells us he “fancies girls”—a “male lesbian,” he calls himself, which may or may not reassure the hetero loyalist.) Hedwig’s Trask, on the other hand, talks the talk: “Homosexuality is not my subject,” he told the Voice. “I’m a subject who is gay.”

Which sounds . . . humorless, but co-creator Mitchell writes lines that would tickle Mae West (arriving onstage to applause: “I like a warm hand on my entrance”). He is also a commanding actor and even a convincingly Bowie-esque rocker (circa Ziggy Stardust, natch). Many reviewers have called Hedwig’s rock-musical score the best ever, and it is indeed a terrific bunch of songs. Less persuasive, for me, is the narrative, an overstuffed, multiply symbolic fantasia on the topic of the tragic trannie, featuring not only botched sex-change surgery (hence the titular “angry inch”) but the Berlin Wall and a meditation on the Platonic question “Can two people become one?”—as aspiration, surely a recipe for personal misery. The fact that Hedwig actually realizes this denouement seems a matter as much of stageplay as of dramatic necessity.

Izzard’s art, meanwhile, is invisible. Though carefully prepared, his script feels chatty, and is in fact improvisatory at heart—his writing is a structure he can both occupy when requisite and vacate at will. What is endearing about Izzard’s humor is its affectionate ordinariness. There is no Wildean hauteur, no baroque back story (as in Hedwig), no wild and crazy guy beneath the appearance of civility; instead there is a totally regular bloke beneath the appearance of purple toenail polish. Izzard is so cheerful it can take a while to realize he’s talking about, oh, mass murder, colonialism, and the history of empire (the Ottoman Empire, say, “full of furniture for some reason”), and he infallibly locates the average in great events. His Neil Armstrong alighting on the moon might as well be stepping off the Blackpool bus, and Izzard himself—slightly ungainly in heels, a little paunchy—is a glamorous guy with a touch of five o’clock shadow.

“Cheater,” the name of Trask’s band, is code for a prosthetic vagina. That didn’t run in Time, but Hedwig clearly keeps the faith with the audience it grows from even while it speaks to a broader and less knowing crowd. Izzard might seem tamer, but is he really? Perhaps he’s a more benign version of one of his own Pilgrim Fathers, so cunningly polite to their hosts on the first Thanksgiving: “There’s lots more of us coming,” they tell the Indians, “but they’re all very nice.”

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.