Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape
In O'Neill's graveyard-shift drama, Mr. Dennehy reluctantly steps into what could easily be an undiscovered urban still-life by the painter Edward Hopper: a dilapidated 1928 hotel lobby in New York City, green as a dirty fish-tank, but with a sleepy older man at the front desk in an eye-scorching red blazer. The motionless image of Joe Grifasi, the clerk in the red jacket, burns into the retina like Hopper's "Chop Suey" sign outside a restaurant window, or like the painter's red gas pumps by a country road. But in Hughie, several lobby lights are out (and the elevator, too), reminding us of hard times. And, like any cityscape by Hopper, the sense of isolation and stagnation in a bustling metropolis is permanently shocking.
Mr. Dennehy, who struts and frets in front of this tableau, is no Las Vegas showgirl either: his summer suit is permanently rumpled, and his once-stylish hat is flattened and stale. And he's badly in debt to some loan sharks who expect their payment by next Tuesday. But for the next 50 minutes or so, he will celebrate a bygone, glamorous era by remembering a gullible, deceased hotel clerk (Hughie, of the title) It all adds up to a story that speaks boldly to America's problems now, more than 80 years after the fact.
A subway train roars by overhead, and a bus pulls up for a moment outside, but neither man seizes the chance for escape because (after all) it is the middle of the night, and where could you go? Mr. Dennehy, as Erie Smith, is mostly gregarious toward the new night clerk, unspooling his own life's story along with a eulogy of the previous clerk. It was in those bygone nights that Hughie would look the other way while Erie would bring in girl after girl, until, gradually, a friendship developed. But that was back when Erie was a middle-class grifter, not to mention a younger man. Now Hughie's gone, and there's no one left to look up to Erie, who's been reduced to the position of part-time errand boy for gamblers who got luckier. All the surviving man is left with are dreams of glory, along with a possible "replacement chump" in this new desk clerk.
Of course, Mr. O'Neill couldn't anticipate that we'd one day owe hundreds of billions of dollars to the Chinese, and to other nations as well, to help finance our multi-trillion dollar budget deficits in Washington; or that America's "style over substance" surrender to foreign car-makers would help dismantle our middle-class. But like any truly great work of art, Hughie speaks to eternal issues of pride and profligacy, and ruin and regret, in a way that thrills our hearts for reasons we cannot initially comprehend.
I know it sounds hard-hearted (given the current recession), but there's a grandeur to this allegory of national decline, particularly in the hands of Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Dennehy, as directed by Robert Falls. Certainly, the characters on stage cannot see it, but it somehow glorifies them: as their humanity pushes them from connection and commiseration, and one more go-round in the world of big talk, and crooked dice.
Like Hughie, the other half of the double-bill, Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape also premiered in 1958. And, thanks to a 15-minute intermission, Mr. Dennehy's transformation is wonderful to behold: gone is the poetically swaggering craps-player, replaced by a funny old man with crazy white hair, who just happens, now and then, to have a banana hanging out of his mouth. Jennifer Tarver directs with a wry touch.
Beckett's biographer James Knowlson says this character is based on the playwright himself, listening again to his own tape recordings made as a 39 year old, after many years have passed. And though the old man (Krapp) is often impatient with his younger self, the sheer poetry of the taped, ghostly narration provides an unexpected sense of uplift. The implied disagreement between the two selves, at the moment before the final light-cue, is captured by a stunning look of telescoping doubt on Mr. Dennehy's faceso comically brusque till then, and now, seemingly paralyzed with an utterly shaken expression, as the stage fades to black.
Why put these two short plays together for one evening? Perhaps because the first seems to cover the end of a civilization built purely on a carnivorous form of capitalism, while the second forces a man to confront his own resignation to mortality, set against the voice of his romantic youth. It all makes you want to treat people, and maybe even yourself, a little better, before it's too late.
Through February 21, 2010 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, in the downtown Loop. For more information call (312) 443-3800, or visit them online at www.goodmantheatre.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association
Photo: Liz Lauren