After Brian Dennehy’s past performances in the works of Eugene O’Neill, no one should be surprised by the persuasive pessimism the actor brings to O’Neill’s one-act play “Hughie” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. But it’s Dennehy’s even greater triumph in the (for him) hitherto unexplored country of Samuel Beckett that has Canadian critics and audiences cheering his merciless performance in “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
“Hughie” — which in the past has been presented as a complete evening by Dennehy, as well as Al Pacino and Jason Robards before him — here becomes a melancholy curtain-raiser to a main course of pure despair. Dennehy has played the role of Erie Smith — conman, grifter, failure without portfolio — before at Trinity Rep and the Goodman, both times partnered with the admirable Joe Grifasi as the near-mute night clerk. The Goodman and Stratford stagings were both directed by frequent collaborator Robert Falls.
In that trio’s combined hands, “Hughie” provides the slightly delayed kick of cheap rye whiskey, which initially deceives your palate into thinking all is smooth but later wreaks havoc with your gut and your brain.
Erie is coming off a multiday bender prompted by the sudden death of Hughie, the previous night clerk at the Manhattan flea-bag where he lives. What we try to learn in the course of the play is whether Hughie actually supported Erie in his loser dreams, or if he just silently nodded, much like his successor, allowing the boastful braggart to assume whatever he wants.
This play was written soon after “The Iceman Cometh,” and the aroma of pipe dreams still hangs heavy in the air.
We might wonder where the unexamined life Erie has been living will eventually lead, and after a brief intermission, we find out.
On a stage bare except for a table, Robert Thomson’s merciless lights suddenly pick out Dennehy’s face, and the audience gasps in shock. Gone is the easy smile, the twinkle-in-the-eye seen in “Hughie.” We are in hell, and Krapp is the gatekeeper. No tricks of makeup, no prosthetics, no special effects. Just the art of acting, pure and simple.
Most of “Krapp’s Last Tape” consists of this lost soul, on his 69th birthday, playing a tape he made at age 39, when his life still had the potential for joy. It means Dennehy largely has to limit himself to reacting, providing a change of pace for this dynamic performer. But since he can’t hurl outward, he digs within, showing the deeply felt despair behind his eyes and in the slump of his shoulders.
Young Canadian director Jennifer Tarver has kept Dennehy on a fairly tight leash, and the results are shattering. The actor was originally scheduled to reprise the double bill at Long Wharf Theater this fall but announced a few weeks ago that he was pulling “Krapp’s Last Tape” and just performing “Hughie.” Given that high praise in Stratford has illustrated how effectively the pairing works, one hopes Dennehy will reconsider that decision.