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Thursday, 31 July 2008

Haunting Dennehy in Hughie / Krapp's Last Tape

Hughie, by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Robert Falls
Featuring Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi

The title character Hughie – a former night clerk in a run-down New York hotel - never makes an appearance. He died about a week before the action takes place. His chief mourner (to hear him tell it) is Erie Smith, a rumpled, boozing, floozing old gambler, played by Brian Dennehy, who has been on the booze since Hughie’s funeral. Coming home, he is surprised at the presence of a new night clerk – last name also Hughes, played with dead-pan melancholy by Joe Grifasi. Erie is tickled by the name coincidence and immediately tries to engage the ‘new Hughie’ with stories of the old.

Except, the new night clerk has pretty much checked out. Sitting under a clock so dusty no one could tell the time, he vaguely reacts only to the city sounds: a passing subway, a dog barking. He does not listen to Erie at all, just making the appropriate nods when it seems they are expected.

But Erie reveals a lot about Hughie, and Mr. Dennehy’s natural performance also reveals a lot about Erie. Relating the stories he told Hughie, Erie is a larger-than-life character, but in front of this audience his physical self belies him: the tired gait, the too-eager, too-loud laughter, the yellowed-linen suit and scuffed shoes, and the disillusionment, the uncertainty and even the harsh edge that Mr. Dennehy allows to creep into Erie’s voice from time to time.

Hughie seemed a decent guy, probably the only friend Erie had and definitely the only one who helped Erie see himself as he wanted to be. Getting the new Hughie to give him the same substantiation is uphill work, but Erie gets there in the end - a connection is reached when the new Hughie realizes that all this time, Erie has been referring to gambling. New Hughie likes to gamble, it seems. The new Hughie might not be as decent a guy as the old Hughie, but it’s good enough for Erie. The audience almost sighs with relief to know that at least in his own eyes, Erie is going to be ok, and that too, is good enough for Erie.

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Featuring Brian Dennehy

Many people come to feel that their lives didn’t go according to plan, and wonder where they took a wrong turn – which decision, which action or inaction formed their present situation and circumstances? In Krapp’s Last Tape we have a man who, though he may not realize it, has captured his moment of wrong-turning in a recording – and with morbid fascination keeps listening to it, over and over, relishing the memory and also relishing being haunted by it. It begs the question – is it better to know, to have a physical manifestation of this fatal turning point, or is it better not to know, to wonder, but retain the potential to step past it?

It will take a better philosopher than I to figure it out.

In this bleak little play about life’s decisions and memory’s power, Brian Dennehy’s portrait of this man Krapp is as soul-stirring as it gets. When the single white light illuminates him at his shabby desk there is a quick intake of breath from the audience - his transformation from the hearty, bluff Erie Smith is so complete it is like looking at a completely different actor. He is slumped, unkempt, unshaven, severely short-sighted, and has arthritic hands. He is deflated. For the first few minutes he stares at something in the distance of his mind as his gaze slowly turns to rest on the audience, seeing them but not seeing them. As silent as he is, he commands the audience’s silence. No rustling, no coughing; just watchful waiting. He finally heaves a sigh, shuffles around the desk, rummages in the drawer for something - presumably one of the tapes from the p! lay’s title. But instead he brandishes a banana – that ubiquitous symbol of comedy that lets the audience relax. A little. Krapp carefully peels it, deliberately drops the peel on the floor. He toes the peel, amusing himself, toying with the idea of slipping on it and is surprised when he succeeds. Then he gets down to business, listening to his tapes.

We and the older Krapp listen to the thirty-years-younger Krapp with something akin to indulgence. Krapp laughs at his own arrogant voice at 39 describing how arrogant he was at 29, and the audience wonders if he is still arrogant; he is more distracted by the fact that he cannot recall what “viduity” means than the fact it was used to describe his dying mother. But it might be more accurate to use the modern term “arrested development”, arrested at the point at 39 when he dismissed a certain possibility.

Audiences may prefer the play Hughie, because it ends on a slightly positive note. Instead, it is Mr. Dennehy’s performance as Krapp that will haunt them: the tiny changes of expression, the torment, defeat, or sudden spark in his eyes. Unfortunately I do not have a tape to let me relive his performance, but I am thinking that might be a good thing. Too much Beckett might be dangerous for the sanity.

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape continue as a double-bill in repertory at the Studio Theatre until August 31. This is a tour-de-force that you should regret missing, because even the additional performances have been sold out. Happily, there is a waiting list….

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