Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape

Brian Dennehy is a force of nature. With just a look he can hold an audience breathless for as long as he wants, and for a big man, his subtle moves, his sly grin, his glaring eyes will tell you what he’s thinking.

Mr. Dennehy is appearing in two one-acts on a double bill here at Stratford; Hughie by Eugene O’Neill, and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Both plays are unusual for each playwright; Hughie, set in the lobby of a 1920’s fleabag hotel in New York, is a short and succinct piece, which, for those of us with the sitzfleisch to make it through three-plus hours of Mr. O’Neill’s other works like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is a change of pace. But Mr. O’Neill gives us as full and compelling character in the person of Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler, as he does in any of the Tyrones, and watching Mr. Dennehy take him through the intricacies of his reminiscences of his late friend, Hughie, make you understand him in a word that would otherwise take a page or a scene.

Krapp’s Last Tape is an unusual play for Beckett; starkly real and harsh as compared to the absurdism and other-worldliness of End Game or Waiting for Godot, but with touches of humor and even slapstick, albeit given that minimalist treatment by the playwright who made Harold Pinter seem verbose. Again, it is Mr. Dennehy’s portrayal of Krapp that makes it work. In the opening moments of the play we see Krapp sitting at a table surrounded by his tapes and his tape recorder, but it’s the eyes…the haunted, terror-filled, angry, lost, and eventually pitiful look in them that holds you and doesn’t let up, even when his back is turned.

There’s a central theme to both plays, and that’s the sense of loss the main character feels and cannot overcome. And in both plays there is a listener that acts like a chorus. In Hughie it’s the Night Clerk who stands by passively and responds in a few words that cuts right through to the truth and reality, providing a counterpoint and a foundation to Erie Smith. In Krapp’s Last Tape it is the tape recorder, playing back Krapp’s words from thirty years ago and brutally reminding him of what he was, what he wanted to become, what he never achieved, and what he lost.

It’s Mr. Dennehy that makes these plays work so well, and once again Stratford has proved its ability to choose both the right plays and the right actors to make it work.