When we meet him in the attractive person of Billy Crudup, the title character of the Off Broadway play “Harry Clarke” is casually dressed and sitting on a wooden deckchair, drink close at hand on a little side table, a beachy backdrop of brilliant blue behind him. He says, early on, “I’m Harry Clarke and I’m gonna mess you up.”
It’s not exactly a threat, coming as it does from our protagonist at the unthreatening age of eight, when he adopts the persona of a proper English boy who comes from London and speaks the Queen’s English — except for those moments when he drops into a thick Cockney accent. From such a lad, the line reads more like a childish promise than a toothy threat. And so, we laugh out loud at this precocious little scamp.
But the laughs dry up when our narrator adopts the flat Midwestern accent of his abusive father, Jack Brugglestein of South Bend, Indiana, to register his dismay when his eight-year-old son, Philip, suddenly and out of nowhere begins calling himself “Harry Clarke” and speaking in an impeccable “Britty Brit” accent. But not even his father’s threats of sending him to a doctor for electroshock therapy can deter Philip from clinging to his self-made persona.
Personally, I could have learned more about young Philip’s schoolboy miseries. But playwright David Cale is anxious to get to the good part, where the kid turns into a full-blown confidence man — in the literal sense of a person who actually lives his own lies and convinces his victims to believe in them too. Not that Harry ever thinks of himself as a con man, or a liar or thief. From the beginning, it was always an identity issue. “I felt liberated,” he says about the alter ego he lets loose. “Special. I felt like I was finally being myself.”
After the death of his parents, Philip Brugglestein moves to Manhattan and disappears forever. The shy, awkward mid-westerner has been replaced by charming, cosmopolitan Brit from London where he has led an absolutely fabulous life as “tour manager slash personal assistant slash whatever-else-was-needed person” for — of all people — Sade.
That’s the whopper Harry tells Mark Schmidt, a rich, naive WASP from Long Island whom he strategically stalks and bamboozles into becoming his friend — his very generous friend, as it turns out. For the rest of the evening (a brief but riveting 80 minutes), Crudup takes Harry deeper into the dark recesses of his adopted identity — especially the side of Harry who toys unmercifully with poor Mark and the members of his generous but gullible family. Crudup plays every character in this story with vocal precision and some subtle physical tricks.
You might be wondering, “How far does he go?” Is he Cale’s version of Tom Ripley, the murderous identity thief in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels? Better not ask.