Review: ‘Harry Clarke’ at Vineyard Theatre

At the core of all great theater is the art of great storytelling. Harry Clarke, a solo show with a compelling story told by a riveting actor in a tour-de-force performance, is just that. Now in its world premiere at Vineyard Theatre, produced in association with Audible, the darkly-funny and deeply-provocative psychological thriller combines saucy humor with bombshell revelations while raising the penetrating question, “Who are you?”

Billy Crudup. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Billy Crudup. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The award-winning team of playwright David Cale, director Leigh Silverman, and star Billy Crudup weaves the fictional tale of Philip Brugglestein, a winsome Midwestern maverick since childhood, who assumes the identity of his eponymous English-born invention and leads a double life in New York and beyond, filled with risky behavior, outrageous cons, sexual escapades, and disquieting secrets. It’s all an attempt to live a more interesting life, as his true self, “to feel liberated, special” with “no hang-ups.” But ‘Harry’s’ predominant mood of animated amusement, while candidly describing his own immoderate exploits, is interspersed with nagging moments of self-doubt and consternation about what he’s done, “on a ride I cannot get off.”

Crudup’s first-person delivery is mesmerizing, as he assumes the distinctive accents, range of emotions, body language, and demeanors of Philip, Harry, and all of the other players – male and female, American and European – in his character’s personal recollections. Flawlessly shifting from one to another with split-second timing and spot-on acuity, he tells of eagerly stalking, befriending, seducing, and scamming the members of a wealthy family, of reaping the rewards of his deception, and of where it would ultimately lead him. Silverman moves him around the mostly bare stage with each brazen anecdote he relays, miming the actions as he describes them, and giving emphasis with his natural and fluid gestures, postures, and facial expressions.

In addition to all of the laughs generated by Harry’s audacious trickery and expressive recounting, the play offers a serious underlying observation on the devastating effects of paternal bullying and homophobia, of being denied acceptance and being treated like a misfit, of feeling uncomfortable with who he was and where he was as a child, growing up in a heartland without a heart. The lingering damage is seen in soul-searching conversations in the mirror between himself and his alter-ego, which hint at a deeper psychopathy – of antisocial behavior and multiple personality disorder – that drives his imprudent actions.

Billy Crudup. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Billy Crudup. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The show’s minimalist design allows us to focus on Crudup and his masterful delivery of the charismatic character and captivating narrative. A wooden deck, deck chair, table, and cocktail glass evoke the story’s upscale waterside locales and drunken episodes (set by Alexander Dodge), supported by Harry’s casually chic beachside attire (costume by Kaye Voyce) and a sky-like backdrop of blue and white lighting (by Alan C. Edwards). Segments of dramatic spotlighting of Crudup on the darkened stage illuminate his character’s self-confrontations, and colored lights (at times more of a distraction than a necessity) suggest the different times and sites of his memories – and, oh, what memories!

Harry Clarke is an astutely written and insightfully performed study in character, identity, and persona that will have you laughing and leave you thinking about the nature of who you are and what you’d be willing to do to liberate your inner self and to forge a life in which you could be the real you – for better or worse.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 20 minutes, without intermission.

Harry Clarke plays through Sunday, December 10, 2017, at Vineyard Theater – 108 East 15th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303, or purchase them online.