Whatever else they have in common – and it’s much – the current productions in Brooklyn of “Krapp’s Last Tape” with John Hurt and “Misterman” with Cillian Murphy share one above all: Live theater matters. Yet both, ironically, rely heavily on tape recorders – old-fashioned, reel-to-reel tape recorders.
Both Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Enda Walsh’s “Misterman” at St. Ann’s Warehouse are one-man shows with more than one character, supplemented by the voices on the tape, and thus difficult to call monologues. Both plays were written by Irish-born playwrights of extraordinary gifts, with literate, oblique, not totally accessible scripts that work better on stage than on page. Both of the current New York productions, starring actors better-known for their movie roles, feature stage performances of a lifetime.
Both plays have an underlying sadness, even horror, leavened by quirky humor. Both shows even offer comic business with bananas – which made me wonder, given both bananas and tape recorders, whether Enda Walsh, who wrote “Misterman” in 1999, is slyly paying homage to Beckett’s 1958 “Krapp’s Last Tape.”
Both short plays can be summed up in a sentence – but their power cannot be so easily explained
Krapp’s Last Tape
John Hurt, whose half century of movie parts include turns in the current “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the Harry Potter films, “The Naked Civil Servant,” and “The Elephant Man,” is, with “Krapp’s Last Tape,” making his New York stage debut – an astonishment. Hurt, now 71, plays a 69-year-old man who is celebrating his birthday by listening to a tape he made when he turned 39.
The play lasts less than an hour, and much of that time is taken up in silence. Most of the sound you do hear is the voice of the man on the tape-recorder. When the play begins, Krapp is sitting at a desk staring out – not at the audience, but into space, where we happen to be sitting. He stares out silently for a long time – a very long time. This shouldn’t work, but it does. We are mesmerized by John Hurt’s face. There is depth here and feeling – and a complicated mix of feelings, largely contempt, when he listens to his own voice on the tape. We are quickly conditioned to the slow pace; every gesture takes on heightened significance. At one point, he reaches into a drawer in his desk, and takes out…a banana. We laugh. He peels the banana, and places it in his mouth whole, just letting it hang there. We laugh again. Later, when he starts playing the tape, we hear him 30 years earlier complaining to himself about his banana-eating habit: “Fatal things for a man in my condition. Cut ‘em out!” Another time, as his youthful voice recalls a physical encounter – was it love? — Hurt cradles the tape recorder – is it lovingly?
John Hurt is taking up a role that he has played for many years. I watched his performance in this play a dozen years ago, which was captured on film in a wonderful DVD collection called “Beckett on Film: 19 films by 19 directors.” He only has grown into the role. And the Digital Video Disc of the man listening to the audiotape cannot match the experience of seeing it live.
Krapp has one taperecorder. Thomas Magill in “Misterman” has littered the warehouse where he lives with reel-to-reel and cassette recorders; he even wears one. “Krapp’s Last Tape” takes place in a small spot-lit space dominated by a bare desk. “Misterman” takes up the entire warehouse that is St. Ann’s, set designer Jamie Vartan stuffing the space with multiple levels, piles of bric-a-brac, performing spaces that we only become aware of as Cillian Murphy occupies them – suddenly we notice a cemetery, with a row of crosses made out of soda cans.
“Krapp’s Last Tape” is filled with silence. “Misterman” is filled with noises – of dogs barking, of original compositions by Donnacha Dennehy, even of Doris Day singing, and above all the many voices of Thomas’s neighbors, both on the various tape recorders, and in Cillian Murphy’s impressive impersonations.
It takes no great perception to realize that Enda Walsh, writing “Misterman” at age 32 (he is now 44), is more engaged than the mature Beckett in theatrical razzmatazz, sometimes to his detriment. But Walsh, who most recently wrote the book for the Broadway-bound musical “Once,” also has a great ear for dialogue. “Sure tea is what’s made this country great,” a neighbor tells Thomas. “And even if it isn’t great, at least we have tea to help us through the terrible darkness.” Another line: “That’s the thing with ‘time’ you see. Wait around long enough and sure as eggs is eggs something is bound to happen.”
Walsh, who also is the director of this production of his play, chose wisely in casting Cillian Murphy, 35, best-known for his roles in “28 Days Later” and “Inception.” Here Murphy rushes back and forth through the widest stage I have ever seen, in a performance that is as precise as it is athletic — cooking, taking a shower, writhing on the floor, eating cheesecake, arguing with neighbors, recreating a day in the life of one Thomas Magill, and recreating the Irish town and townspeople of Inishfree, where Thomas lives with his widowed mother. How much of what is happening is in Thomas’s head – or in some other-world/nether-world? Is Thomas spiritual or a religious fanatic or mentally ill — or all three? The answers are maybe too clear by the end of “Misterman,” but the getting there is a riveting experience, one that could only happen in the theater.
Krapp’s Last Tape At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater By Samuel Beckett Directed by Michael Colgan; performed by John Hurt; lighting by James McConnell. Running time: 55 minutes with no intermission “Krapp’s Last Tape” is set to run through Dec. 18.
Misterman At St. Ann’s Warehouse Written and directed by Enda Walsh esigned by Jamie Vartan; lighting by Adam Silverman; sound by Gergory Clarke; music by Donnacha Dennehy Cast: Cillian Murphy (Thomas Magill) and the voices of Marcella Riordan (Mammy) and Alice Sykes (Edel). Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. Misterman is scheduled to run through December 22 7