Storytelling, in the way of ancient bards around a fire, has been a dead art for centuries. And yet we occasionally see glimpses of it in the talents of certain performers, because as humans, we have always held this power, and held it in high regard when it's done impeccably well.
Actor Billy Crudup is one of those storytellers who can captivate and even transport an audience just through words and speech, and he proves this talent minute by minute in Harry Clarke — a one-man play that he has compared to a "high-wire act." But what's a high-wire act besides a brief, slightly thrilling spectacle? What Crudup pulls off in this play is much more impressive, sustained, and revelatory.
The play opened Monday at Berkeley Rep, in a remounting of a production originally done at New York's Vineyard Theater in 2017, directed by Leigh Silverman. And it finds Crudup slipping deftly back into this demanding role, in which he alone commands the stage, without pause, for 90 minutes.
I'll spare any spoiler details — the play is far more rewarding if you go into it knowing little, so you could just stop reading here. But suffice it to say, it is a play about a man named Philip who grew up something of a misfit in Indiana, and he is living a rather unremarkable life as a barista in New York City, having escaped a family that never accepted him, when his life is hijacked by a split personality of a sort. That second persona, the cockney-accented Harry Clarke (Philip himself speaks with a more genteel English accent, which he began doing as a child) is more confident, fearless even, and that confidence ends up getting him ingratiated into the lives of a wealthy family. Somewhere in there, he also claims to know Sade.
We're not asked to understand how Philip/Harry's psychology works. It may be tied to something clinical, or it may just be an elaborate performance that Philip can't help himself but to give. The nature of the personalities we perform daily, and how they relate to our true selves, is at the heart of the play, and no certain judgement is cast on Harry's behavior — though it is no doubt gross and unfeeling, at turns.
Playwright David Cale follows his character through a dark but not especially malicious journey, and morality has little to do with it anyway. One man's con job is another man's saving grace, and maybe none of it matters in the final accounting. Finding out who you really are, though — that is a harrowing journey to be sure.
Crudup tells the story of Philip/Harry, through Philip's words, and bounces into and out of the voices of a half dozen other characters without betraying the slightest hesitation. One flubbed line or stammer could unravel a piece like this, pull the audience out of the vivid tale that the performer is painting with words and gesture. But Crudup guides us through this man's unlikely story and embodies others as well, male and female, without a flinch.
In one moment, Crudup lies in a near plank position on the stage, reenacting a moment of intimacy with another character as though both were in bed, and you'd swear that there was more than one person there, that this was not just one actor relaying the private moments of a fictional human being.
That alchemy, combined with the seamless movement between accents and the timbres of other voices, are what make Harry Clarke a powerful piece of theater in the hands of Crudup. One can see how, in the hands of a lesser actor, you might not be so beguiled or transported into this other plane, visualizing whole people and their foibles and ticks — a whole cast of people leaping out of one man. This is the magic of a great bard captivating his audience, delivering us from the mundane for an hour or two before bed. And it is a thrill to see.
Harry Clarke plays through December 23. Find tickets here.
Photo by Kevin Berne