Only on rare occasion have I found a one-man (or woman) play rich enough for my blood. I do recall John Gielgud’s mesmerizing performance in Shakespeare’s Ages of Man, and there have been some plays dressed up to look fully realized by using scenery and costumes to enhance interesting stories from the mouths of interesting people like Truman Capote in Tru and Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop and played by the likes of Robert Morse and Mary Louise Wilson. But the title Harry Clarke did not ring any bells with me, so even though the cast featured the very affable Billy Crudup, a charming actor who has done consistently good work in plays like Arcadia, Waiting for Godot, and No Man’s Land, I didn’t hold out much hope for a nourishing afternoon matinee at the Vineyard Theatre. “Who is Harry Clarke,” I thought, “and why should I spend 80 minutes listening to an actor speaking of him or for him?”
Lesson learned. Enter a theatre by checking your preconceptions and your expectations in the check room. If there is no such facility, stick everything you’ve piled on you to stave off the winter winds under your seat, sit back and give a listen to the playwright and his cast of one.
In this case we have a British monologist, David Cale, not well known in America, here making his Vineyard debut. He’s written and played several other one-man plays, and his writings have taken him to two-man plays, and the book, lyrics, and music for Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky, in which he played Floyd. But with Harry Clarke he allowed director Leigh Silverman to offer his play to Billy Crudup, and what a good idea that turned out to be.
Crudup soon has us forgetting this is a one-man play. Early on, he explains that his young life in a small Midwestern town was so barren, so out of tune living with his parents (both of whom seemed to belong to another tribe), that he decided to create another person to be–and so Harry Clarke was born, fully grown, out of his own imagination. Moving to New York City and presenting himself as this well-heeled Englishman, he charms his way into a prominent family’s life as seductive and precocious Harry. He is forced to create a very complex and glamorous background for Harry, and his behavior becomes increasingly risky and dangerous as time goes on. The tale he tells is full of surprises, details, suspense; and there was total absorption, not a sound from the audience for the entire 80 minutes it took to tell it. Along the way, Crudup played his character’s mother and father, the girl and her brother from the family he joins up with, as well as the matriarch and patriarch of that family. No spoilers here, but Harry does have some powerful encounters and has a tremendous effect on all of these make-believe people, and because they are so real to him, we totally identify with them all as well. Crudup manages, seemingly without effort, to become each one of them, sometimes two or three at a time. His parents are rural Americans, his newly formed family are urban English folks. His is a tour-de-force performance, and it deserved the ovation that greeted him on his bows.
In afterthought (and you will have many thought provoking moments if you see it), Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley kept popping into my head. That’s the novel with a very similar liar whose involvement with others changed all their lives. Also Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in which Robert Walker attached himself to others by pretending to be someone he wasn’t. The greater challenge here is to create the same sort of suspense, and satisfactory conclusion, with only one actor to play everyone whose lives are touched during his reign of terror. This is exactly the sort of work that theaters like the Vineyard are mandated to offer, and they justify their leadership in this small group of explorers who sometimes come up with gold. This is one of those times.
Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.