The mostly obsolete art of the double bill gets an awfully nice lift with this evocative pairing of Eugene O’Neill’s one-and-a-half person drama, “Hughie,” and Samuel Beckett’s single-character “Krapp’s Last Tape.” In addition to providing actor Brian Dennehy with a showcase for his wide-ranging talent, these concise but expansively expressive works provide an all-too-rare reminder that the theatrical art form itself was once a primary vehicle for exploring what Beckett called, simply, “it all,” or, as Dennehy’s Krapp describes it with exasperated fury, “everything on this old muckball.”
In tandem with his frequent O’Neill collaborator, director Robert Falls, Dennehy has performed “Hughie” in multiple incarnations. He first combined it with “Krapp’s Last Tape,” directed by Jennifer Tarver, at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008.
The pairing does magnify the themes of each play, intriguingly pitting O’Neill’s verbosity and American colloqualisms against Beckett’s spare lyricism.
In “Hughie,” Dennehy plays Erie Smith, a garrulous gambler who lives in a flea-bag Manhattan hotel, its lobby brilliantly rendered with dilapidated elegance by Eugene Lee. Erie — named after his place of origin — is mourning the loss of the hotel’s night clerk Hughie. He explains their close relationship to his friend’s replacement, played by Joe Grifasi with the humorous half-consciousness of a man used to sitting behind a desk and doing nothing all night long.
Over the course of a 45-minute rambling monologue — one can follow the time on the clock behind the desk — Dennehy elegantly lays bare Erie’s deep grief for the one person who saw him, or at least pretended to see him, as he wishes he were; who believed all his tall tales and fell for even his most blatant gambling tricks. Hughie may have been a “sucker,” but his absence threatens Erie’s ability to maintain the sense of self — no matter how illusory — he needs to go on.
This one-act presents O’Neill at his most concise — he explored similar themes in plays like “The Iceman Cometh,” at five times the length. So it’s amusing that Beckett can still make O’Neill seem almost ridiculously indulgent.
Beckett doesn’t even need a second character to explore Krapp’s identity; for him, the self is split sufficiently as to be its own “other.”
It’s his 69th birthday, and Krapp listens to tapes he recorded 30 years earlier. He barely recognizes his younger self — he even needs to resort to a dictionary at one point to understand his vocabulary. And he most certainly needs a drink or two… or three, to make it through: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself to be 30 years ago,” he spits out as he starts a new recording. “Hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”
Dennehy is a terrifically curmudgeonly Krapp, and the two performances are significantly transformative, not something we’ve necessarily seen from this actor before. His slicked-back light hair as Erie is replaced by a white mop, with matching furry eyebrows and stubble.
There have been funnier Krapps, and more lyrical ones, but Dennehy has that uncanny knack for making an everyman of characters without compromising their unique qualities. And under Tarver’s direction, helped by beautifully sharp design work from Robert Thomson (lighting) and Richard Woodbury (sound), Beckett’s ending is so uncompromising and straightforward — so simple and yet so full — it exposes O’Neill as, believe it or not, something of a sentimentalist.
Exploring loss, regret, the human longing to be recognized and to make sense of oneself in a cold, lonely world, these rich plays place the very concept of human identity under a dramatic microscope, where it appears enlarged but fractured, consistent only in its contradictions.