What Is This Krapp?

Completing the series of Stratford reviews to date (I go back this coming weekend for another visit, so I’d better get the last trip’s reviews done now, or I’ll never catch up), we attended the opening of a double bill of one-acts starring Brian Dennehy: Hughie, by Eugene O’Neill, and Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett.

I had not seen either show before, and though I’m pretty familiar with the works of both playwrights, I had not read these plays either. They are a study in contrasts, and I’m still puzzling through how fruitful the contrasts are.

Hughie centers on a down-on-his-luck gambler, “Erie” Smith, living in a fleabag Times Square hotel, just coming off an exceptionally heavy bender, the capstone of his mourning for the departed former night clerk at his fleabag home, the titular Hughie. After suffering a young replacement clerk for a few days, Erie is pleased to come home to find a new clerk more in Hughie’s mode: older, worn, a family man nonetheless left alone, beaten by life. And he, Erie, commences an extended monologue, punctuated occasionally by the O’Neillian equivalent of “yes m’lud” from the new clerk (also surnamed, “Hughes,” hence more easily conflated with the late lamented Hughie). The subject of the monologue: Hughie, and Erie’s mingled affection and contempt for a man he knew to be a sap and an easy mark but whom he never took, but rather gave to, because he received from him a kind of admiration he was unlikely to get from any other quarter. As it turns out, Erie is on the edge of catastrophic failure, and pushed himself to (or likely over) that edge by borrowing to pay for an expensive wreath for Hughie’s funeral. The monologue builds the the point where Erie finally gives up on the new clerk, at which point the ‘til-then sphinx-like fellow opens up enough to reveal that he, too, is captivated by the idea of knowing a man who knows all the big-time gamblers, and a new friendship of sorts begins between clerk and tenant.

The play is a kind of distilled essence of O’Neill, and whether that strikes you as a good or a bad thing depends largely on what you think of O’Neill as a playwright. I spent a couple of years in college reading, way, way too many O’Neill plays (Lazarus Laughed? Marco Millions?) and I kind of got indigestion. I retain affection for some of the early work – The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones – and, at the other end of his career, Long Day’s Journey Into Night of course has its very powerful moments . . . but it’s also horribly self-pitying, as is so much of his work. Hughie is blissfully short, and free of the huge distracting Big Themes that sometimes clutter up O’Neill’s plays, but it’s also fully well as self-pitying as any of his longer plays. Ultimately, you either find a guy like Erie to be exemplary of the human condition in an important way, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then there’s a limit to how interesting the play is going to be.

That said, Dennehy does everything one could want to make the play compelling. He’s very comfortable in O’Neill’s linguistic and cultural world, and he persuasively inhabits this sad character still trying to charm and impress even in a rumpled white suit and a three-day beard. And he plays opposite Joe Grifasi, an old friend and acting partner, who plays the night clerk with a monumental opacity that suddenly crumbles into eager and pathetic essence of homo sap. (The night clerk character must be a strange one to play, as he’s got almost no dialogue, but the text gives him voluminous internal monologue in the form of stage directions. Reading the play is almost an entirely different experience from watching it, because in performance the night clerk has almost no opportunity to communicate in any detail what the stage directions say he is thinking.)

Dennehy’s transformation from the first half of the evening to the second was dramatic. One difference between a real old pro like Dennehy and an old hack is the old hack is always doing the same schtick, regardless of the part – he has the same distinctive hand gestures, the same vocal inflections – while the old pro vanishes into his character. Well, that evening Dennehy confirmed that he’s an old pro.

Krapp is also dominated by stage directions, and is also a quasi-monologue, so there is a formal basis for the pairing with Hughie, but the differences are more notable than the similarities. The stage directions in Hughie are meant to be read; those in Krapp, to be acted. The first ten minutes, entirely silent, involving business with a variety of drawers and bananas, is either hilarious or impenetrable depending on your sense of humor (I found it to be hilarious, but I noticed that I was giggling rather more than the rest of the audience). But for the rest of the play there is very little speaking by the actor on the stage; rather, the monologue is pre-recorded, and is the voice of the character in his late thirties, describing a moment of great decision in his life, a choice for art and against love, recorded on a tape that his older self returns to and plays obsessively over the course of the scene. The actor on stage interrupts his younger self periodically to express his disgust or to get a drink, but he has no one to speak to but himself, and he does very little of that.

It’s a marvelously devastating bit of theater, as Beckett should be. Krapp’s Last Tape is – and should be – a particularly uncomfortable play for a blogger. Here sits a man, a writer, having reached his grand climacteric, looking back on a life devoted to a project of self-creation through self-revelation (and using new technology – the reel-to-reel tape recorder), and consumed with self-disgust at the utter waste of such an effort. The fact that I’m continuing to blog after having seen this play is only more evidence that theater lacks any real power to change one’s life. Which, I think, Beckett would agree with.

A word about the sets and the theater space. This production was mounted in Stratford’s Studio Theater, its newest and smallest space, a 260-seat miniature of the grander Festival Stage. It is a simply terrific space for just about any show you like, from a one-man piece like Krapp’s Last Tape to a play like last year’s Pentecost which has about two dozen characters plus a jeep. And it is notable that Stratford put real time, energy and money into this production (not to mention casting one of their biggest-name visiting stars of the year) even though it is a relatively small theater. And the sets for both halves of this evening are absolutely flawless, the Hughie set perfectly and realistically evoking the kind of Times Square fleabag that Erie should inhabit (dominated by a huge wooden reception desk and a stopped wall clock), the Krapp set similarly perfect – also realistic, but pared down to the absolute minimal essentials, which is, really, what Beckett is doing with language as well.

(As an aside, what is it about both sets that make them feel old? All’s Well That Ends Well was set in late-19th-century France, and everyone’s in appropriate period costume, and speaking early-17th-century English – yet it doesn’t feel dated. But everything in this production looks – appriopriately – old. The set of Krapp is particularly striking in that regard, in that there’s so little to it: a mid-century steel desk of the sort you might have seen in any number of government buildings, a bare bulb, the tape player . . . that’s about it. Did these things always seem old? Does minimalism seem old? Is there some perfect distance in time that makes things seem old, before they can become timeless? But I own a bunch of mid-century modern furniture, and I don’t think the pieces look “old” – rather, they look period. What is it? Anyway, the set designers and costume designers at Stratford routinely produce miracles, and this is a very small one.)

What does the juxtaposition of these two plays signify? I’m not sure. They are both Irish, they are both about men in the latter part of life whose illusions have been punctured, and they are both about 45 minutes long. But I’m not sure there’s as much to hold them together as whoever joined them – I assume that’s Dennehy – might have felt, because Hughie is, from start to finish, about social man – man evading his aloneness – while Krapp is all about a man alone with himself, our ultimate condition, and one I, personally, really don’t like to contemplate. In any event, whether the two pieces play off each other well, it’s well worth your while to see Brian Dennehy play off both.