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November 19, 2018

Beckett Demonstrates Longevity In Double Bill With Weaker O’Neill

by Patrick Hurley

By Patrick Hurley

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape, playing now at the Geffen Playhouse, prove to be a contrasting but thematically compatible pair starring two time Tony Award Winning actor Brian Dennehy in a double bill that showcases not only his gravitas as an actor, but the disappointments and disillusionments of life as perceived by perhaps the two greatest dramatists of the twentieth century.org_img_1541795256_L-IMG_0112Hughie, a minor work of Eugene O’Neill, delves slightly into what O’Neill often grappled with in his major works, the illusions people create in order to survive the mundane awfulness of reality. So many of his characters are lost in the past versions of themselves, a heightened and idyllic past that ultimately makes the present a miserable place to find themselves. His characters are usually filled with regret and anger and ultimately despair is the culminating resting place that most O’Neill protagonists are doomed to settle in. Erie Smith (Brian Dennehy) is a small time hustler, living in a small hotel in midtown New York, returning home in the middle of the night, at the tail end of a five day bender, mourning the loss of his friend Hughie, the former night clerk of the hotel. The play is essentially a monologue in which Erie regales the current Night Clerk (Joe Grifasi) with tales of Hughie and the good ole days. It becomes clear, pretty quickly, that Erie is holding onto a romanticized notion of Hughie and how his life was immeasurably better when he was alive. The danger of nostalgia and the stasis that accompanies it, are counterbalanced by the sudden and sometimes startling angry outbursts from Erie. Brian Dennehy is such a good actor that he not only embodies the perfect amount of gruff exterior that meets a deeply wounded inner life, but he sinks his teeth in and actually becomes the broken man. The piece is somewhat verbose, a bit on the nose and just doesn’t resonate enough to leave a lasting impact. Director Steven Robman simply has his actor move around from seat to seat and occasionally approach a staircase, as if he considers going up, but the staging actually makes the piece a bit slower and the relaxed tone doesn’t make for very compelling theater. But Mr. Dennehy, along with a wonderfully stoic Jow Grifasi, makes the most of a minor work from a great author.

org_img_1541808735_L-IMG_0748On the other side of the coin sits Krapp’s Last Tape, the far superior piece. Samuel Beckett, an author of singular genius, whose theatricality perfectly matched his own philosophy almost always transports the audience into a dreary yet oddly hopeful and often very funny world. Krapp (Dennehy) a somewhat curmudgeonly old dude, celebrating his 69th birthday by listening to a recording he made on his 39th birthday is the only character in the play.  He shuffles and mumbles his way through a sort of silent prologue where we  watch the ritual of him collecting his old reels, going off stage to imbibe some kind of liquor,  which happens episodically throughout, and an absurd bit with bananas, after which we settle into the recording itself. His 39 year old voice is strong, a bit self-assured, musing on the fact that he just listened to the idiocy of the tape he had recorded as a  twenty-odd-year-old. Both the 39 and the 69 year old man understand what a fool the younger man was. They share laughs at his expense. The voice in the tape is somewhat pretentious, at one point he even uses a word that his 69 year old self has forgotten the meaning to and must look up in the dictionary, which, in an inspired bit of design, is the only book on the vast bookshelf. After listening to his younger self for a bit he fast forwards through the loquacious bits to get to the story he tells of an encounter he had with a woman. We can see on his face the impact this encounter had on him, as he rewinds to play it twice. He relives the sweetness of it and we understand that this loss never left him. Eventually the 69 year old Krapp grows weary and even resentful of his 39 year old self and decides to make a new recording. But unlike the younger versions of himself, Krapp at 69 is unable to find anything positive to say.  In fact, he ultimately has nothing to say at all and he retreats into his memories where the younger voice is confident and completely assured that no matter what happens he will have no regrets. The bitter irony of this is captured in just one look, a look that Mr. Dennehy gets exactly right. Such sorrow, the deepest of despairs is in the knowing that whatever it was he once thought he could have, he never will. And so, as the tape nears the end, inching closer and closer to silence, so too, we hope, will the man.

The beauty of this piece is not fully captured in this production, though once again the strength of Brian Dennehy’s performance holds it afloat, even though, as strong as he is, there is an element, an absurd Beckettian element that feels lacking in this somewhat somber presentation. Beckett has a life blood all his own, there is a bleakness, a graying of the world around his characters that makes the language and absurdity pop, and with this production, there’s a settled-in feel that makes it more solely about the performance and so we lose some of the genius, some of the impact and some of the beauty of the isolation and the cold, hard world. But it still works, and that has to come down to the fact that Samuel Beckett holds up as one of the giants of the theatre.


Hughie

By Eugene O’Neill

Krapps Last Tape

By Samuel Beckett

Directed by Steve Robman

Starring Brian Dennehy

Geffen Playhouse

10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024

Tickets currently priced at $30.00 – $120.00. Available in person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, by phone at 310.208.5454 or online atwww.geffenplayhouse.org

 

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Patrick Hurley

Writes Plays & TV. Rewrites Queer History.

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