Vineyard’s Harry Clarke: The Talented Mr. Billy Ripley Does A One Man Show
Billy Crudup is the main draw. I have seen him on stage numerous times: Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, and the thrilling Pillowman (a play that I remember blowing me away), and was thrilled to have the chance to see him in this one-man show at the intimate Vineyard Theatre. David Cale’s exciting Harry Clarke is a magnificently fun ride to take with Crudup, who is given numerous great moments and thrilling acting choices to make over this 80-minute study. It’s the story of a shy young Indiana man who discovers the power of an English accent in American at a very young age, but when that fails to give him all he desires in New York City, Harry Clarke resurfaces to drive him fearlessly forward into intrigue and power.
Billy Crudup is magnetic holding our attention completely with his shy grin and his strong cockney’d persona. This is an actor’s dream role, and one he whole-heartedly grabs hold off with the confidence of someone like Harry Clarke. He’s casual (costumes: Kaye Voyce) in a way that all of Philip’s characters can inhabit his body with ease. His accents wavered a bit at the beginning, sliding in and out (dialect coach: Elizabeth Smith), but once Harry comes back into Philip Brugglestein’s scared little world with full force, that Englishman’s confidence is infectious, strengthening Crudup’s game completely. He does a great job circumventing some of the awkward transitions within Cale’s text, that left us scratching our head one or two times, but Crudup keeps us leaning in nervously as we try to figure out where this play is heading.
I must admit one little bit of conversation had me loving Harry Clarke a bit more than I already did. We share the same ideas about theatre and knowing:
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand why anyone would read reviews. Why would you want to know what’s going to happen? Isn’t one of the powers of art rooted in the element of surprise?
I remember years ago seeing that film “Sexy Beast”. I didn’t know a thing about it. From the title I assumed it must be one of those soft core porn films the English are partial to. But it was nothing at all as I imagined. All these former criminals laying low in Spain. It was fabulous. But part of what made it great for me was I knew absolutely nothing about it. The impact of the film was connected to the unknown.”
I share that ideal, and I always hope that within my reviews, I don’t give too much away, or tell a fact that is better left unlearned until viewing. That’s my wish when I read a review. Don’t ruin a surprise, and here in Harry Clarke there are plenty, and I’ll let you uncover them, one at a time, just like I did the other night.
It’s a bit of a play on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” structure though, I’ll tell you that, but it does not follow the details and pathways of that wonderful film. This is a different story, but with some parallels. The sexuality and obsession are playfully experimented with and explored, as is attachment and need. It’s clear that Philip’s father and his midwestern upbringing helped cement the need for him to escape both his roots and his physical hometown life, in the same distorted way that Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley needed to. Both are underachievers who find obsessive attachment through forgery to a handsome and spoiled rich man. Where this tale goes when Harry takes the reins is different though, and very compelling, keeping us biting our nails wondering how all of this aggressive and sexual energy is going to take us.
The stage is simplistic in it’s attire. Designed by Alexander Dodge (Broadway’s Anastasia, Present Laughter), I was never fully aware why the choices were made until much deeper into the piece, and the lighting by Alan C. Edwards (National Black Theatre’s Kill Move Paradise) seemed distracting when more subtle shifts might have been more effective. But as directed by the wonderful Leigh Silverman (New Group’s Sweet Charity, MCC’s All the Ways to Say I Love You), the piece drives forward with an anxious edge that borders on excitement, tension, and fear of discovery. Sometimes it feels like Silverman is compelled to utilize the space more than needed with lighting and blocking, but it really isn’t all that necessary. Harry Clarke, both as a persona and a play, are enticing enough to keep us glued to Crudup’s every move. And with a bit more editing and tightening the focus both mentally and physically, Harry‘s rise to thrilling domination is as captivating as anything Tom Ripley could have dreamed up.