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Theatre in Review: Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre)

Billy Crudup. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Most of us, at one point or another, would welcome the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, but few of us ever go to the extremes of the protagonist of Harry Clarke. David Cale, that spinner of theatrical shaggy-dog stories, has done it again with this solo piece about the adventures of a split personality -- and how the more he splits, the more he succeeds. Usually, Cale writes vehicles for himself; this time, however, he outsourced the job to Billy Crudup. The result is a joyful reinvention for both artists.

Indeed, Cale's plays are so specifically crafted to his singular performance style that one rarely, if ever, hears of anyone else taking them on, but it's easy to imagine that Harry Clarke will be catnip to actors everywhere. Crudup, whose recent stage appearances have included No Man's Land, Waiting for Godot, and Arcadia, isn't necessarily the first name that one would associate with the role of a sexually fluid loser from the Midwest who, assuming another identity, gets entangled with the members of a wealthy, and frequently crazy, family. Happily, he delivers a tour de force, seamlessly embodying both the character and his shameless alter ego, as well as those unlucky souls who come into his orbit. It's an enterprise that could go seriously wrong, given the squirrely events that unfold and some of the bizarre, morally questionable choices that are made.

Philip Brugglestein, our narrator, is a slice of milquetoast from South Bend, Indiana, who, well into his thirties, is still living at home. He must be a bit of a masochist, having grown up with a sadistic father and a loving but ineffectual mother; he learns to disassociate early on, adopting a British accent that, he insists, is the expression of his truest self. This may be so, but all it earns from his dad is a slap upside the head and threats of electroshock therapy. Along with the accent comes another identity, that of Harry Clarke, who sounds uncannily like one of the cocky Cockneys that were Michael Caine's specialty during his Alfie period. Posing in front of an eight-millimeter camera, he launches into his routine: "Why these people yellin' all the time? Come off it. They're bonkers. I feel like I'm livin' in a bloody madhouse. I'm Harry Clarke, and I'm gonna mess you up." At the time, he is eight years old.

After the deaths of his parents, Philip collects his inheritance and heads for New York, adopting the British accent once and for all. "If anyone asked where I was from, I told them I was from Elstree, north of London, where the film studios are," he says, displaying his talent for creative lying. At this point, however, he is still known as Philip. Then fate throws him together with Mark Schmidt, a handsome businessman whose marriage is in the last stages of decay -- and, out of nowhere, Harry asserts himself. Among other things, he claims to be Sade's former tour manager and personal assistant. And he establishes his bona fides as a free-living, only-in-the-moment personality that is Philip's polar opposite.

Almost against his will, Philip-as-Harry invites Mark out for dinner and what becomes a long night of drinking. Before long, they are heartfelt bros and Philip finds himself staying on the family yacht, the Jewish American Princess, with Mark's bellicose father, wisecracking mother, and Stephanie, his winsome musician sister. (In one of the more amusing passages, he executes a deft sleight of hand via the telephone, convincing Mrs. Schmidt, a devoted Sade fan, that she is leaving a message on the star's answering machine.) Cale drops clues to suggest that Mark may be conflicted about his sexuality, and Philip, acting as Harry, goes for broke, making an overture so brazen that it works, landing Mark in his bed. Mark has a bad case of morning-after remorse, however, and breaks off the friendship. But this is hardly the end of the story as Philip/Harry subsequently gets involved with both Stephanie and Mrs. Schmidt; with the latter, he has what one imagines to be one of the funnier conversations about fellatio ever held on a New Jersey patio.

And don't think that Mark, who has many more demons than are initially apparent, is out of the picture, either. The more Philip is trapped in Harry's lies, the more he seems to benefit from them, even in an ongoing affair with Mark that is scarred by internalized homophobia and substance abuse; a lot of the piece's entertainment value lies in Philip looking on in horror as Harry takes one wild risk after another. And when disaster strikes the Schmidt family, as it does more than once, Philip only benefits. You could almost say that their misery guarantees him a happier ending than he could ever imagine for himself.

The most continuously surprising thing about Harry Clarke is how a narrative that could have come from a Patricia Highsmith novel -- I am not the first to notice its resemblance to The Talented Mr. Ripley -- is played so consistently for high comedy. Cale establishes Philip's unhappy youth with such force that we find ourselves rooting for him -- or, at least, for him not to get caught. In truth, he doesn't do much damage -- except, perhaps, to Mark, who is sufficiently self-destructive to do the job all by himself. And by the time Philip finds a new home and way of life, we fully accept it as a well-earned personal liberation.

That we do so is due in no small measure to Crudup's seemingly effortless handling of the script. In addition to playing his parents and the various members of the Schmidt family, he leaps between Philip's and Harry's personae with such agility that we always know who is currently in the driver's seat. Even when their personalities are at their most divergent, he never lets us forget that they are aspects of the same man. This is the most challenging role the actor has had in years and he makes this high-wire act seem as effortless as walking on solid pavement.

The direction of Leigh Silverman -- who has demonstrated her knack for comedy many times -- is, without doubt, central to the piece's success, especially in maintaining a brisk pace. (This is an important achievement, as it prevents us from questioning the coincidence-laden narrative.) The production also has a just-right design, including Alexander Dodge's set -- a wooden deck and sky-blue upstage scrim -- that provides clues to Philip's fate, and Alan C. Edwards' attractive, varied lighting. Kaye Voyce's costumes and Bart Fasbender's sound are also solid.

Whatever happens, one thing seems clear: Harry is going to win out. And, as it happens, it may not be a bad thing. In any case, watching Philip/Harry's wild ride provides an evening of wickedly enjoyable entertainment. Harry Clarke's triumph is also one for his author and star. -- David Barbour


(28 November 2017)

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