'Old Hats' review: Bill Irwin's vaudeville with modern touch

In "Old Hats," directed by Tina Landau, music

In "Old Hats," directed by Tina Landau, music by Nellie McKay, and opening Mar. 4, 2013 at the Signature Theatre in Manhattan, Bill Irwin, left, reunites with fellow clown David Shiner for a new work combining their inimitable magic, slapstick, and hilarity using music, technology, and movement, plus other tricks up their sleeves. Here, from left, Nellie McKay, David Shiner and Bill Irwin. (2012) (Credit: Joan Marcus)

If Nellie McKay did not already exist, Bill Irwin and David Shiner would have had to make her up for their delirious joy of a show, "Old Hats."

The slinky and game singer/satirist is that good a fit with these irresistible masters of new/old existential baggy-pants vaudeville. As for the fellows, well, it isn't much of a stretch to believe they actually could pull McKay -- and her upright piano and her shark brain and that flower in her yellow hair -- out of one of their magician hats or their clown trunk.

Twice in the '90s, Irwin and Shiner had wondrous eccentric success on Broadway with "Fool Moon," with down-home incidental music by the Red Clay Ramblers. This time, the silence of the mime is filled with a torchy omni-jazz quartet, plus the sweet retro sounds and take-no-prisoners lyrics of McKay.

The show, directed with helium-weight virtuosity by Tina Landau, proves its techno cred by starting with the men running from a computer-generated boulder. Later, Irwin struggles with his image on an iPad. But the innovations in G.W. Mercier's pitch-perfect sets and costumes never come close to overtaking the passion for tradition.

The commuting businessmen are back, but as creakier older guys who exchange pills to stretch and shrink body pains. Shiner again directs an old-time movie, with help from ringers or perhaps civilian hambones from the audience. Irwin, with his big jaw and open face, gives Shiner innocence. Shiner, with his darker demons, gives Irwin an edge. And now McKay provides what we never knew was missing, funny sex appeal.

WHAT "Old Hats"

WHERE Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Delirious new/old vaudeville, plus torchy girl

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