No ‘Krapp’ about Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape : Dennehy shines in the dark
As Eugene O’Neill explains in his 1925 play Lazarus Laughed, “Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.” This applies to Erie Smith, a drunken, withering gambler in the renowned playwright’s 1942 one-act play Hughie. However, Erie’s mirrors don’t reflect his own image, but the recently deceased hotel clerk properly nicknamed Hughie. Both Erie and the audience discover that Hughie’s presence gave Erie an affirmation of his own existence and recognition for his own successes and failures. Erie struggles to cope with Hughie’s death, because it represents his own mortality. He attempts to replace his old friend with the new night clerk, coincidentally named Charles Hughes. He stumbles into the shabby hotel lobby and proceeds to reminisce, hoping that Charles will take interest. Similarily, in Samuell Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, we are presented with a window into the life of an old man whose existence seems little more than thinking about his past. Krapp broods and reminisces about lost love and former passions. Together, these seemingly different plays pose those same questions of existence and impeccably combine.
The acclaimed Brian Dennehy returns to Goodman Theatre after multiple productions including O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Dennehy gives stellar performances as both Eerie and Krapp, one a drunkard with a hearty laugh and the other an aged, deranged and regretful man. The role of Erie is less of a challenge, requiring Dennehy only to lay on some sleezy charm, show a hint of sadness and produce a slightly obnoxious laugh. For some actors, a difficult task; for Dennehy, it’s a warmup. We see the character progress from a place of loss to ultimate excitement when the new clerk, played by the brilliantly mopey Joe Grifasi, eventually expresses an interest in gambling. While perfecting Erie may not be a crowning acting achievement, especially for Dennehy—whose credits seem endless—perfecting Krapp is. His performance is nothing less than perfect. From the spine-chilling opening curtain to the equally cringe-worthy closing, Dennehy is Krapp, a still-breathing manifestation of sorrow, loneliness and regret.
Krapp is on the verge of his 69th birthday, and as is his tradition, he listens to tapes he has made for every year of his life. This year he has chosen to examine his 39th birthday. With his disheveled hair and all-telling wrinkles, Krapp’s every movement, word and reaction to the recordings show the audience that the only validation for his existence comes from these dusty tapes. We experience with him the lost fire, the lost vigor and the chances he passed up. Krapp replays the resonating words that speak of a past love, “We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.” These words reveal a shattering expression of loss. The tape’s unrecognizable voice and the young Krapp elucidate how much he has changed. The entire performance is enhanced by the bleak set design; a dark room, a desk, a door, the recorder, and boxes of tapes. It almost leaves one to wonder what lurks in the pure black within the room—perhaps the lost lives of an aging man.
Goodman artistic director Robert Falls directs Hughie with precision. It is obvious that Falls, Grifasi and Dennehy were very much a part of the artistic process because there is definitely room for slight character fluctuations, but the overall production is sharp. The same goes for award-winning Canadian director Jennifer Tarver with Krapp’s Last Tape. In particular, the prolonged silence at the beginning of the short play, followed by Krapp’s encounters with a banana, provides the sort of uneasy laughter that keeps the audience waiting for what is to come.
As it is making its way to Broadway, there is not much time to see it at its birthplace, where the images of the Owen stage will haunt and torment for weeks, months, even years to come. These dark numbers coincide for an enriching theater experience, one that may inspire change or evoke regret. Either way it is worth a ticket. If anything regrettable about Hughie/”Krapp’s Last Tape, it’s missing the chance to see it before it’s on the broadway stage.