'Tis the season for one-person Dickens shows. While Jefferson Mays performs a one-man version of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, Eddie Izzard is performing her solo version of Great Expectations Off-Broadway at The Greenwich House Theater. Izzard, a dynamic performer to say the least, portrays 19 characters in this tour-de-force adaptation of the classic, directed by Selina Cadell. Hilarious, riveting, and at times unsettling (Miss Havisham, need I say more?), the production is an unqualified triumph.
Part of the reason it works so well is that Izzard, a dyslexic who apparently had never read a great work of literature until she picked up Great Expectations, is a wonderful interpreter of Dickens. Her wry, unforced comedic style puts a spotlights the author's witty, often wicked humor. When she says that an old man's hair was "obviously arranged by a dead relative," the audience hoots with laughter. The truth is, Dickens is hilarious, but modern audiences, used to associating him with starving orphans, often miss this. Izzard isn't forcing humor into a serious tale: she's simply uncovering what was there already—something she does remarkably well throughout the play.
For those of you who weren't forced to read Great Expectations in high school (or who have forgotten its plot in the intervening years), the novel concerns Pip: a young man of lowly birth who has great aspirations (or should we say expectations?). When a mysterious benefactor raises him up in society, he becomes the gentleman he's always dreamed of being—but it's not quite all it's chalked up to be, and he has a lot of growing up to do before he merits the sudden honor bestowed upon him. Most importantly, wealth does not guarantee him the hand of his unrequited love: the beautiful and haughty Estella, raised by the eccentric Miss Havisham—who is usually the only thing people remember about the novel.
Izzard inhabits each character with gusto, from the simple yet goodhearted Joe (Pip's father figure), to the dignified Estella and the crazed Miss Havisham. Perhaps most crucially, she brings Pip to life as an earnest, if foolish, young man with a full character arc. If Pip is largely unlikable for the duration of the story, and if the ending feels a little forced and unsatisfying, Izzard is not the one to blame. In fact, I found myself enchanted and enthralled by the story as never before. Undoubtedly, this is also due to Mark Izzard's adaptation, which of necessity simplifies and condenses the story to center more squarely on Pip's coming-of-age journey.
Dickens, God bless him, can be tedious. So can solo shows, especially ones that contain a host of characters. Eddie Izzard's Great Expectations is not. Far from being dry or long-winded, it's among the most engaging evenings I've ever spent in a theater. Izzard and her creative team have whipped up a fun yet faithful, modern yet meaningful adaptation—sure to please both long-time fans of the great English author and people whose Dickens exposure is limited to The Muppets' Christmas Carol.
'Charles Dickens' Great Expectations' runs through February 11 at The Greenwich House Theater (27 Barrow Street). For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.eddieizzardgreatexpectations.com.