Eddie Izzard is a Pip in the new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Greenwich House Theater. She’s also a Miss Havisham, a Magwich, an Estella and a dozen-plus other characters from the classic 1861 novel.
The actor-comedian, who recorded the entirety of “Great Expectations” several years ago for an Audible edition that clocked in at just over 20 hours, delivers a live stage version that runs a fleet two hours and 15 minutes (with an intermission). The adaptation, by Izzard’s older brother, Mark, captures the spirit of the original — jettisons subplots and condenses some of the more meandering Dickensian language for modern ears, to mostly good effect. (The best lines, including some of the best punchlines, remain Dickens’ own.)
Purists may balk at this CliffsNoted treatment of a beloved Dickens story, but the streamlined script serves its star, who proves adept at making each of the characters a distinct presence without relying on over-the-top accents or other broad shtick. Izzard mostly plays things straight, though she leans into her comedic instincts with unexpected line readings and pantomimed moments (sticking out her tongue as a child in one scene, or licking an invisible spoon that has been stirring a bowl of Christmas pudding).
Unlike Jefferson Mays’ tour-de-force version of “A Christmas Carol” now playing on Broadway, director Selina Cadell’s production does not rely on high-tech set and lighting design, quick costume changes and other visual effects. This is theater as storytelling in its most elemental sense, with Izzard herself as the biggest special effect.
Best known for her work in stand-up comedy, Izzard has an enviable résumé as a more serious actor (even earning a Tony nomination in 2003 for a revival of “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg”). Indeed, her work in comedy proves a valuable asset in a show like this — which requires not only commanding the attention of the audience while alone onstage but also allowing for shifts in tone and emphasis as the story progresses.
Striding the stage in her black knee-high, high-heeled boots, Izzard has presence. It’s not a showy performance, but it’s all the more powerful for its restraint.