Eddie Izzard is furrowing her brow in mock confusion, eyes darting this way and that. Pip, the narrator of “Great Expectations,” whom Izzard plays along with every character in this solo spin on the classic, is at a loss for words, and Izzard is committed to the bit.
It’s a rare moment, of course, as Izzard, the British comedian and actor, has to get through the whole of Charles Dickens’s densely plotted novel in two hours (with a 15-minute intermission). But these fleeting glimpses of her sly, sideways persona, honed on stand-up stages beginning in the late 1980s, are the highlights of this otherwise straightforward, relatively dry retelling, which was adapted by her brother, Mark Izzard, and opened at the Greenwich House Theater on Thursday.
Impassive matter-of-factness and clipped, first-person narration are hallmarks of Izzard’s comedy style, usually applied to keenly observed, and often frankly personal, anecdotes in specials like “Wunderbar,” from this year, and “Dress to Kill,” recorded in 1998. But taking the stage alone to dramatize a decades-spanning coming-of-age tale is a steep hill to climb. (Izzard, who last year completed 32 marathons in 31 days, has a thing for feats of endurance.) In that respect, Izzard’s accomplishment here is impressive, if not without hints at the strain of the effort.
Serialized in 1860, “Great Expectations” is packed with incidents involving the orphaned Pip and a cast of richly drawn characters: the stern sister who raised him and her kindly husband; a convict turned mysterious benefactor; a lawyer who delivers the windfall; a devoted tutor; peers; rivals; and, perhaps most memorably, the cold object of his affection, Estella, and the eccentric widow, Miss Havisham, who reared her as an emotional hostage.
As Pip, Izzard maintains a measured and mildly animated tone, as if reading to an especially excitable child at bedtime. In a cinched black waistcoat, white ruffled blouse and bold red lipstick (the costume stylists are Tom Piper and Libby Da Costa), Izzard assumes Dickens’s wide array of characters with only subtle modulations of voice and gesture — a hand raised with fingers splayed as Miss Havisham, a slight gaze down the nose for Estella.
Instead, the work of distinguishing between speakers falls to the step and half turn she performs, between nearly every line of dialogue, to face the opposing direction, the shuffle of lace-up high-heel boots across the floor like a kind of human metronome. The technique, which Izzard notes in the program is borrowed from Richard Pryor’s stand-up, substitutes physical business where deeper development of individual characters, and the tensions between them and Pip, would be more engaging.
Any such interior or relational work is daunting to fathom, though, given the twists and turns in Dickens’s sprawling narrative. Unlike “A Christmas Carol,” a neatly structured, novella-length morality tale frequently adapted for the stage, including in a solo version currently on Broadway starring Jefferson Mays, “Great Expectations” is an unwieldy interpersonal epic. Mark Izzard’s adaptation, which is faithful to Dickens’s prose while slashing it down to the barest threads, moves with such expediency that it can be tough to follow, even with whole characters and subplots excised.
Nor does Izzard’s performance, unlike Mays’s in “A Christmas Carol,” aim to make the story’s telling especially theatrical. By the time she reaches the second act’s dizzying tumble of action-packed resolutions, the viewing experience is less about being entertained than rooting for Izzard to cross the finish line with her assurance and charisma intact.
The production, directed by Selina Cadell, is simple almost to a fault, with velvet red drapes framing the stage (Piper also designed the set) and lighting, by Tyler Elich, that does the most imaginative work of any element to bring the story into the room. Music compositions by Eliza Thompson, the occasional trill of woodwinds between chapters, has the old-fashioned feel of a radio story hour, but sound design, which might have generated dimension and atmosphere throughout, is curiously absent.
Pip reflects, in his youth, on contending with “feelings of restless aspiration.” An artist as prolific and ambitious as Izzard (not to mention an athlete as extreme) can undoubtedly relate. It’s when that eager flash in Izzard’s eyes cuts through the flurry of words that “Great Expectations” lives up to its own.
Through Feb. 11 at Greenwich House Theater, Manhattan; eddieizzardgreatexpectations.com. Running time: 2 hours.