Thursday, November 23, 2017

Harry Clarke - One Man's Search for Himself

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Billy Crudup gives a powerful performance in David Cale's Harry Clarke. A one-man play about the realizations and pitfalls that come with self-discovery, now at the Vineyard Theatre. 

Crudup plays Philip Brugglestein, a man who hails from Indiana, and who has no happy memories from childhood. His parents fighting seemingly all the time and his father an alcoholic. During those early years, Philip started speaking with an English accent as a means of escaping who he was and where he was from. Something which annoyed his father to no end.

After the death of his folks, Philip relocated to New York City "where, from the day I landed, I spoke only with an English accent". A charade he's kept up for over a decade. One day while out walking, Philip spies a man who happens to pique his interest and ends up following him around unnoticed for the next few hours. 

Some months afterward, when he happens to run into the same fellow, one Mark Schmidt, Philip strikes up a conversation with him, using information he gathered from their previous encounter. Philip introducing himself as "Harry Clarke". Harry being a confident and outgoing Londoner Philip invented during his Indiana days; and whom he hadn’t thought about in years. Though now Harry is back with a vengeance and through him, Philip finds himself doing and sayings things far outside his usual norm.

It’s not long before Philip, as Harry, begins to insinuate himself into Mark’s life, and by extension, Mark's entire family. Harry's brash openness being a sort of magnet to which they are all drawn. Harry and Mark becoming particularly close, with Harry's presence causing Mark's own suppressed desires to emerge. The outcome of which leads to a place none of those involved had envisioned in the beginning.

Harry Clarke proves to be an interesting experience, as both Philip and Mark continually struggle with who they really are as opposed to who they think they need to be. The story containing elements of Six Degrees of Separation, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even a bit of The Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, the playwright never decides exactly what he wants to focus on. Is this a story about the duality of man; a lesson on the dangers of trusting the wrong people; a tale of a boy running from his past; or a warning against continually suppressing who you actually are inside? The work eventually getting to the final denouement without being illuminating enough about the actual journey necessary to get there. As such, good as the piece is, one eventually begins to listen to it with a rather detached air, instead of being totally immersed in the tale as it unfolds.

The play also never allows the audience to get inside Harry's head and see what makes him tick. His actions seeming more a continual series of contradictions rather than anything clearly defined. Philip may come to believe Harry is real, but the audience isn't offered enough information to make that decision for themselves. As a result, the story's overall impact isn't nearly as effective as it could be.

There are also problems with some of the other choices Cale has made with his script. One in particular having to do with the fate of a character which feels a bit too contrived. Especially when taking into account all that has come before.

Crudup does an excellent job in taking on the personas of the various roles. His vocal skills particularly evident as he switches from English to Midwestern American and back again. Though he is much more believable when speaking as a male character than a female one. Just as importantly, Crudup is able to convey a very engaging stage presence. Something vital in a situation such as this. The audience being told the story rather than shown it, with Crudup acting as the conduit through when they follow along.

Leigh Silverman's direction is tightly focused and keeps the narrative moving nicely, while not allowing any of Crudup's characterizations to slip into parody or caricature. Something which the character of Harry easily has the potential to do. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge is non-descript enough so it doesn't distract from the story that's being spun, while providing a fitting framework for the final moments of the play.

Harry Clarke is an enjoyable experience, but the tale related doesn't go deep enough to make it something really special.

Harry Clarke
By David Cale

Featuring Bill Crudup (Philip Brugglestein)

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Kaye Voice
Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Original Songs: David Cale
Assistant Director: Bryn Herdrich
Props Master: Andrew Diaz
Dialogue Coach: Elizabeth Smith
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Shelly Miles
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Mary Duffe
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
General Management: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
Produced in connection with audible

108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or
Running Time: 85 Minutes, No Intermission

Closes: December 17, 2017

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