Billy Crudup in ‘Harry Clarke’ at The Vineyard Theatre. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Unless we’re actors, most of us go through life with one persona. We may now and then enjoy playing around with an accent to fool someone, or donning a Halloween costume to pretend we’re someone else, but, for the most part, we carry on—even as we mature and acquire new mannerisms and behaviors—as whoever we were when we were born.
Some people suffer from personality disorders that create identity confusion, while others deliberately adopt different identities as part of a conscious attempt at subterfuge, perhaps as spies, undercover cops, or maybe as con artists. And some otherwise reasonable people, like the hero of David Cale’s Harry Clarke, just find life easier by being someone else.
Harry Clarke, unobtrusively directed by Leigh Silverman, is the latest addition to the library of literature, theatre, and cinema dealing with assumed identity. In this one-man play at the Vineyard Theatre, where he made his New York stage debut, film and stage star Billy Crudup plays a guy from Indiana named Philip Brugglestein. When he was eight-years-old, Philip realized that he was more comfortable in the skin of a posh-accented Englishman than that of a Midwestern American.
This preference, however, seriously angered his abusive father, who considered it unmanly, an attitude that led Philip to defend himself by creating a sharp-edged, cockney-accented alter ego he named Harry Clarke. That he carried both the snooty and cockney personas into his maturity is at the heart of this darkly comic look at Harry’s adventures in identity land.
Crudup, costumed by Kaye Voyce with a casually untucked sports shirt, recounts Philip/Harry’s story on Alexander Dodge’s elegantly simple, wood-planked floor backed by a cyclorama, with only a wooden deck chair, a small side table, and a glass of water as his props. Alan C. Edwards makes the most of this physical paucity with exceptional, mood-shifting lighting.
Having grown into his 30’s passing himself off as a Brit, even though he’d never crossed the pond, Philip became something of a shiftless drifter, surviving on the money from the sale of his late parents’ home. When he felt he might drop the pretense and reveal the truth, a friend’s rejection convinced him he had no choice but to continue the deception.
One day, on a whim, Philip decided to trail—or stalk, if you wish—a random stranger in midtown Manhattan by following him into a Gap store, watching him buy underwear, and eavesdropping on a phone conversation the man was having with a Frenchwoman. The adventure over, he returned to his everyday life.
Months later, however, he spotted the man at a play, and, again unable to resist the thrill of the risk, switched to his Harry Clarke identity to strike up a conversation, using the few bits of information he picked up when eavesdropping. The man, Michael Schmidt, in his mid-30’s and the successful businessman son of a wealthy, Jewish, Connecticut family, took to him immediately. He was enormously impressed by Harry’s boldly cock and bull story about his 20-year professional relationship with the singer Sade.
From here on, the narration becomes a saga of deepening deception as Harry becomes closely enmeshed with Mike, his parents, and his sister. Drugs are ingested, alcohol is imbibed, sex is enjoyed, and death intervenes. Meanwhile, Harry’s bisexuality reflects the fluidity of his identity issues.
Devious as he is, Harry’s intentions are rather benign, unlike Tom Ripley’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Paul Poitier’s in Six Degrees of Separation, works that Harry Clarke vaguely echoes. For all his machinations, Harry’s in it for the experience, not to cheat or harm anyone. The thrill is in the game, not its pecuniary rewards, despite his struggle to make a living. The play’s conclusion, then, couldn’t be more ironic.
The audience is never told why it’s hearing this story, nor does it learn until the end why the set looks as it does. Numerous incidents transpire but the structure resembles a shaggy dog story, with active events followed by passive ones; chance is often more significant than volition. Laughs arise here and there, the biggest emerging from a lubricious moment involving Mike’s mother: funny, yes; credible, barely.
Harry Clarke gives its star a valuable opportunity to display his versatility within its hour and 15 minutes. Billy Crudup may not be the most chameleonic of actors but his chiseled features and personal charm, coupled with his use of subtle facial and gestural changes, agreeably engage us as he presents multiple characters, male and female, with creditable success.
Crudup’s principal strength appears in the rapid shifts in accent and voice that characterize each person, although his Americans are differentiated more by attitude and tone than by the dialect variations distinguishing his Englishmen.
Harry Clarke wins no races in the increasingly familiar solo play sweepstakes. However, in giving the talented Mr. Crudup a vehicle for a close-up showcase it serves its purpose with distinction.
108 E. 15TH St., NYC
Through December 10
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).