Sunday, June 29, 2008

Split Decision on Krapp/Hughie

J. Kelly Nestruck reviews the double bill Krapp's Last Tape (four stars) and Hughie (two stars) for the Globe and Mail:

"Brian Dennehy may be a star, but he is not behaving like one at the Stratford Festival. You would have paid full price to see Al Pacino in Hughie in New York or Harold Pinter in Krapp's Last Tape in London, but here Dennehy performs both one-act plays as a double bill. It's a real bargain, allowing you to watch the two-time Tony winner play contrasting roles as a smooth-talker and a listener in the same night.

"Let's start with his best performance, though it comes second. In Krapp's Last Tape, Dennehy plays a man of 69 who sits down to dictate his annual audio diary to reel-to-reel tape recorder. Before he does so, however, he listens to an earlier spool recorded when he was 39.

"The younger Krapp has just had what he believes is an important revelation about life, but the older Krapp fast-forwards past all the 'stupid bastard's'' deluded bluster to his delicate description of the last night he spent with a lover, a breakup that took place in a boat. 'We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.'

"Watching Dennehy's Krapp relive, recoil from and regret his past, one will feel similarly moved by melancholy. Stratford's intimate Studio space allows one to see every emotion register across Dennehy's craggy face as he lets his normally jutting jaw sag and his broad shoulders slump; he is an engrossing listener, eloquent in his silence.

"With a script that is mostly stage directions and recorded dialogue, Krapp's Last Tape leaves little room for interpretation. Director Jennifer Tarver does an excellent job of simply getting out of Beckett's way, though you can tell there has been meticulous work behind the scenes. Robert Thomson captures the mood perfectly with his sharp, geometric lighting design. (My only quibble: Why does the older Krapp have a stronger Irish accent than the young one?)

"Although Krapp's Last Tape is Beckett's most naturalistic portrayal of man's battle with memory, when he wrote the play in 1958 it was actually science fiction. He had spied a tape recorder for the first time only that very year in a BBC studio; few had pondered what the technology would mean a lifetime later.

"The play's underlying questions about how technology shapes and influences how we remember are only more relevant today as young lives unspool online on blogs and Facebook. We're only beginning to think about what it will mean 40 years down the line when grandparents are able to Google their younger selves. Will they think they were 'stupid bastards' too? In the future, I think we will all feel like Krapp.

"From Dennehy's masterful Krapp, let's rewind to a craps player named Erie Smith in the O'Neill two-hander Hughie that starts off the evening. The two plays share the same year of premiere, Nobel-winning authors, an excess of stage directions and a similar theme of regret, so it's easy to see why they have been partnered.

"But Hughie, written in 1941 but staged only after O'Neill's death in 1958, is a minor work in which the Irish-American playwright adopts the streetwise patter of Damon Runyon to little effect.

"Erie, a self-aggrandizing small-time gambler, is returning to his hotel room after a several-day bender. He launched into the drinking spree after Hughie, the hotel's old night-desk clerk and his long-time sounding board, has died.

"Now there's a new desk clerk (Joe Grifasi), whose last name is the same as the deceased one.

"Erie seems to have lost his luck and sense of self with Hughie, who listened to and believed his big talk about gambling wins and the showgirls he had seduced. At least that's what Erie tells us; he's a self-confessed unreliable narrator, so it's entirely possible that Hughie saw through his guise (and dolls) and was just humoring him.

"O'Neill himself said that Hughie was 'written more to be read than staged' and Robert Falls, who also directed Dennehy in his Tony-winning Broadway performances in Death of a Salesman and Long Day's Journey Into Night, hasn't found a particularly engrossing way of staging it. The whole thing feels dramatically unfocused, a little too much like actually listening to a depressed drunk. The clock above the desk clerk remains at 4:20 a.m. – are we in purgatory or has it simply stuck? – and one begins to wish Krapp would come on and fast-forward this deflated windbag.

"Dennehy's Erie is believably pathetic, though his bright, even Hollywood teeth give away that he is an actor slumming.

"The show's primary treasure is Grifasi, who upstages the star as a hilariously hang-dog night clerk; the listener triumphs once more.

"The sound design by Richard Woodbury deserves a mention for its very realistic off-stage barking and a subway that rumbles over the audience.

"Not a great play and only a decent performance from Dennehy, but when you view it as a prelude to a magnificent Krapp's Last Tape, it just seems like bonus material."

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