Bill Irwin, David Shiner, make stylish ‘Old Hats’

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COURTESY JOAN MARCUS
Clowning greats Bill Irwin
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Ready for some baggy-pants antics from a couple of first-class clowns delivered in hysterical sounds of silence? Then you are ready for Bill Irwin and David Shiner opening this week in American Conservatory Theater’s presentation of “Old Hats.”

The pair first worked together on a Western starring River Phoenix. Irwin’s character was called Comic, Shiner was Straight Man. “We were working out some routines for that movie and kind of hit it off professionally,” Shiner says. “Our stuff was really, seemed effortless.”

“I didn’t know what to make of the movie,” Irwin jokes, “but we kind of threw stuff together and it made sense. It embryonically fell together there, in Roswell, New Mexico,” he adds with a mock sinister smile.

“Old Hats” is an erstwhile successor to “Fool Moon,” a collaboration that garnered the pair a Tony Award in 1993 for unique theatrical experience and had sold-out runs at San Francisco’s Geary Theater in 1998 and 2001.

Both actors have enjoyed individual successes. Shiner made an early mark with Cirque du Soleil and works regularly in Europe. Irwin received another Tony for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner and raised hackles as “CSI” serial killer Nate Haskell. Both also spent time in Broadway musicals but, given their druthers, prefer to just clown around.

In its New York incarnation, “Old Hats” got a new-kid jolt from the presence of singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, who wrote and performed songs for the piece and alternately served as a comic foil or object of competing clown affection. For the San Francisco edition, even younger up-and-comer Shaina Taub fills the femme tap shoes.

A songwriting singer-actor, Taub won raves Off-Broadway for “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and is working on the scores for two new musicals.

“David, go to the wings. Watch and learn,” says Irwin, quoting an ad-libbing, in-character Taub at a recent rehearsal. “Never seen anybody quite stun you like that,” he needles Shiner, who offers a “What can I do?” shrug and smile.

“You’re gonna hear a lot of buzz about her,” Shiner enthuses. “You’re gonna hear a lot of Sophie Tucker kinda belting, too!”

Tying all the elements of magic, slapstick and vaudeville together is director Tina Landau, whose résumé includes directing on Broadway, playwriting and crafting the books to the musicals “Floyd Collins” and “Dream True.”

At the core of it all, Irwin says, is “our love for the art of the clown, which still gets us excited, even in deep, deep middle age!”

IF YOU GO

Old Hats

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 5

Tickets: $20 to $120

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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