Gray-bearded Avner Eisenberg is no kid, but there is something childlike about his dexterously hapless long-time alter ego, Avner the Eccentric. In the veteran new vaudevillean’s Exceptions to Gravity (at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through December 23), the shy, mischievous Avner makes rude noises, stares down his pants, and allows himself to be tyrannized by the lighting. He also juggles bats, balances an enormous ladder on his face, makes a pet of a wriggling red cloth pocket square, and eats a flapjack-size stack of paper napkins. A bald charmer in red suspenders, Avner is ultimately triumphant in his ongoing battle with any number of inanimate objects; indeed, his props — in cahoots with varying physical forces, including the title one — appear in the course of an hour and a quarter to stage a massive serial insurrection, which the clown puts down with agility and patience. Certainly he earns the audience adulation that he proceeds to conduct as if it were a guffawing symphony. Avner is very good at what he does. He should be; he has been doing it for a long time. But venerable though the audience-interactive clown may be, he remains in touch with his inner toddler — and with the outer ones, too. At the opening-afternoon performance, the cracking up of kids in the audience, who clearly found this master of physical comedy wittier than Oscar Wilde crossed with Chris Rock, was delightful to hear.
In his long career, Avner — who trained with French movement master Jacques Lecoq in the 1970s — has parlayed his talents into broader clowning enterprises; he appeared in the film Jewel of the Nile and in Robert Woodruff’s 1987 Lincoln Center staging of The Comedy of Errors with the Flying Karamazov Brothers. But the one-man show has been his bread and butter (well, napkins). He won a 1985 Drama Desk Award for Avner the Eccentric, some of the highlights of which are recycled in Exceptions to Gravity. Indeed, the new show begins with Avner’s janitor’s prologue from Comedy of Errors. As if he were a stagehand, the star enters the Lyric’s three-quarter arena pushing a broom. He stops to have a cigarette, and pretty soon the pack is spewing Marlboros. When he gets them corralled, a box of matches goes into revolt. Then his hat falls off, and there’s a major production to get it off the broomstick and back onto his head. If this predicament doesn’t discourage smoking, I don’t know what will.
When reviewing mime or clowning, I often feel like a pie hater asked to judge a baking contest. Too much of non-verbal comedy strikes me as either precious or tedious rather than as, as I gather it’s supposed to, a wordless version of Waiting for Godot. But Avner sure knows what he’s doing, and he pulls it off with a mensch-like modesty. Just listening to him reduce those kids to shrieks of amusement and surprise without twisting up a single balloon animal made my day.