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Bill Irwin: Have dressing-room trampoline, will travel

When I call Bill Irwin, it's usually bad news. I called him when Jonathan Demme died, seeking his recollections of the "Rachel's Getting Married" director and former neighbor. Likewise, when Robin Williams died, I called him to talk about his "Godot" co-star, with whom he appeared in the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" video. This was a happier occasion: The opening of "Bye Bye Birdie" on Broadway.

Nyack's Bill Irwin, widely known for his clowning, has done some serious stuff of late, winning a Tony Award as George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and playing Vladimir in "Waiting for Godot."

Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett: heady, precise stuff.

But if he thought playing the harried father of a teenager in "Bye Bye Birdie" would be a walk in the park - and he did - he had another think coming.

"I made that mistake early on," he says. "I thought, 'Well, after the Beckett thing, I'll have 'Bye Bye Birdie' and that'll really be kind of a rest.' I've never worked so hard in my life."

The Roundabout Theatre production, in previews before an Oct. 15 Broadway opening, is the first revival of "Birdie," the 1961 Tony-winning best musical that features the songs "Put on A Happy Face," "The Telephone Hour" and "A Lot of Livin' To Do."

It stars John Stamos as Albert Peterson, the meek manager for teen idol Conrad Birdie (Nolan Funk). When Conrad is drafted into the Army, Albert's secretary (Gina Gershon) dreams up a publicity stunt, to have Conrad give one last kiss to the president of a small-town fan club.

That president is Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio.

Irwin plays her exasperated father, who would love to think he's the king of his castle.

Irwin's dressing room at the newly refurbished Miller's Theater, steps from Times Square, has the basics: a small sofa, a sink, bright lights - and a small trampoline.

"It's an essential," he says, "to get the blood flowing before you stretch. Then you have a chance of walking a straight line without discomfort."

Irwin brings his trademark physicality - he's a world-renowned clown - to the part of Harry MacAfee, originated on Broadway and played in the 1963 film by Paul Lynde.

"I think any great play, any play worth watching, is a physical play," Irwin says. "'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' is famously wordy, but because (Edward) Albee is so brilliant, it has these flashes of violence. And once you had an actual flash of violence you had the possibility or intimation of more violence."

Like George in "Virginia Woolf," Harry's a lot about the posture, Irwin says.

"He's buttoned-down and from Ohio and these outliers bring sex to Sweet Apple, in the form of Conrad Birdie," he says.

They also bring Ed Sullivan to Sweet Apple, or at least Ed's cameras. And that changes everything for the star-struck Harry, who becomes obsessed with getting to meet Ed or at least getting on TV.

Sweet Apple is a long way from that dusty path Irwin found himself wandering from April into July, opposite Nathan Lane, John Goodman and John Glover in "Waiting for Godot."

It's a different time, a different relationship with the story, he says, and it requires a different sort of precision.

While "Godot" put a premium on wordplay and the intimate relationship among actors and their words in a small space, the scale for "Birdie" is much grander.

With a stage full of actors, a moving treadmill, and scenery coming on and off, the MacAfees - Irwin, Dee Hoty as the missus, Allie Trimm as Kim and Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolph - have to hit their marks.

"It's like a NASA piece of engineering and it's tempting to become part of the mechanism, but we as actors have to keep life within that."

As a trained clown, mime and comic whose work as "Mr. Noodle" on "Sesame Street" has drawn giggles from untold toddlers, Irwin is accustomed to listening to the audience's laughter and adjusting his performance to heighten it.

But in this theater, he says, the distance from the stage to the audience -- and the fact that the orchestra is playing - requires him to trust director Robert Longbottom's staging implicitly and just do the work.

"We're all flying on instruments and you have to retool your instruments sometime," he says. "Don't hold for a laugh, just trust that they'll be there listening and keep up with the meter."

There are several quick changes where the cast goes off and, within seconds they're back in an entirely different outfit.

"It's like being in a film and smash-cutting, where in the blink of an eye it's the next morning. But we're doing those changes in the wings, in the blink of an eye," he says.

Some of those changes are done in plain view of the audience - while Ed Sullivan's cameras are rolling - in an Act 1 finale that puts Irwin's considerable clowning talents to full use.

Irwin says he took as inspiration Charlie Chaplin's first film performance, as a man at the car races in Venice, Calif.

"They're shooting the race, but Chaplin, once he sees the camera, just wants to be seen on camera. They push him away but he keeps coming back. That's the Harry MacAfee impulse. And that's the seed of all these reality shows today."

Irwin has been reading Shakespeare's "King Lear" for pleasure and says it's not too far a reach to see parallels with Harry MacAfee.

"When Harry says to his wife 'I never asked for much from my children. Just respect,' he and Lear are starting from the same electrical impulse.

"Here, we're after laughs, but laughs come from being as serious about what you're after as possible."

Irwin also drew on a lesson learned from the man who directed a previous "Godot," the 1988 production in which Irwin played the servant, Lucky.

"Mike Nichols, just to drop a small name, says it really well," Irwin says with a smile. "He says that the fuel for us in building a character is the difference between how a human being thinks he's presenting himself to the world and what people actually see."

"You have a moment of aspiration and then you suddenly trip and fall," he says. "In there is a lot of comic energy."

Director Longbottom captures the MacAfee family dynamic - like most, this one's dysfunctional, too - before a word is spoken, in a wordless scene during the overture.

Growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., Irwin played Conrad Birdie in a junior-high-school production.

And he was one of the millions who caught "Ed Sullivan" every Sunday and saw Elvis and The Beatles.

Forty-five years later, the cast of teens who populate fictional Sweet Apple had never heard of Ed Sullivan, Irwin says.

Longbottom also had to explain to the kids how TV worked back then.

"When something was on TV, it played when it played," Irwin says. "There was no ... catching it on the computer."

Irwin adds that one of the show's most memorable songs, "The Telephone Hour" - during which phone lines are buzzing with the news that Kim's going steady with Hugo Peabody - involves something kids these days have never heard: a busy signal.

"When the telephone rang and you picked it up, that meant no one else could call," Irwin says with a smile.

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