I feel a fire in me now,” snarls Michael Laurence in an atrocious brogue. “And anythin’ could happen.” It’s the end, not the beginning of the actor’s “Krapp, 39,” but the words recall the opening of Samuel Beckett’s famous dirge for misspent youth, “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Laurence, by contrast, has come up with a more wistful examination of his own tender years — his insight is less scalding than his idol’s, certainly, but no less funny or affecting.
“January 21, 2039 — London!” crows Laurence. In his fantasy, the actor has fought his way into the history books with a West End performance of Beckett’s piece, the play’s taped monologue recorded on his 39th birthday 30 years earlier (in 2009). He regales us with a list of his imaginary accomplishments, announces his victory in stentorian tones to giggling patrons of the Soho Playhouse and then falls silent, dissatisfied with the dream.
“January 21, 2009,” he begins again. “Redo.” He pauses, unable even to speak the word for a moment, and then: “Florida.”
That’s Laurence’s shtick summed up in a single word, heavy with melodramatic revulsion. The show — gorgeously directed by George Demas, and mostly composed of the author-performer’s journal entries, phone calls and personal correspondence — is simply Laurence sticking a pin into his own self-importance and watching it deflate time and again.
Actually, “simply” may be the wrong word for it. There’s a kind of hopefulness behind Laurence’s self-flagellation, a suggestion that maybe he’ll uncover something new and worthwhile about himself, if only he can tell us with perfect precision what a vain, vacillating windbag he is. And he certainly does this — Laurence’s practiced movements are as prissy and careful as a good mime’s; each time he recalls some dumb or ridiculous incident, he’s a pleasure to laugh at.
Laurence gives us oblique moments, too. His recollections of his late mother (eerily coupled with her recorded voice) are impossible to dismiss or forget when he next segues into a story of his own pomposity, so there’s a surprising sting to each chuckle as we remember how much his mother loved this silly, insignificant man in front of us.
The sum of “Krapp, 39” is an utterly unsparing portrait of a normal New York actor, predictably attractive and wholly committed to chronicling himself in countless pages of notes and tables full of tchotchkes that hold value only for him — last things grasped out of the stream of transience.
Ultimately, the most remarkable thing about this everyday guy is that he has both the wit and the inclination to craft such a funny and pitiless self-portrait. Arrogance and self-regard are always a risk in a one-man show; in “Krapp, 39,” Laurence flees so quickly to the opposite extreme that his show is a complete surprise — and thus, hilarious. It’s the same impulse that propelled Beckett’s bleak play, and like his spiritual ancestor, Laurence has produced a priceless artifact.