“Who are you?” Billy Crudup asks near the end of “Harry Clarke,” as he looks in an imaginary mirror, a tight spotlight on his face, the rest of him in darkness. It’s the question animating David Cale’s 80-minute solo show about a man’s fake identity overtaking his real one. In several of its particulars, this play at the Vineyard Theater about an orphaned, bisexual con man seducing his way to luxurious living recalls “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
It takes a charismatic performance by the talented Mr. Crudup to make something undeniably entertaining out of Cale’s familiar and improbable yarn.
Crudup portrays Philip Brugglestein, who grew up in Indiana with an abusive, homophobic father, and decided, from the age of eight, to affect an English accent. “I don’t know where it came from,” he tells us. “English TV shows on PBS?” In the way that other children invent an imaginary friend, and for much the same reasons, Philip imagined an alternative identity to go with the invented accent, a character he named Harry Clarke.
Both his parents died by the time Philip was 18, and he used the money from the sale of their house to move to New York. For amusement one day, Phillip stalks a man he chooses at random, following him while the man shops at the Gap and eats at a café, overhearing his phone conversation.
By chance, he runs into the same man a few months later at a play, and introduces himself as…Harry Clarke. He and the man, whose name is Mark Schmidt ,hit if off, and Philip gets further into his role, creating for Harry a glamorous former job – as personal assistant to the performer Sade (surely chosen for her signature song “Smooth Operator”) — and a devil-may-care attitude. What follows is a seduction, not just of Mark, but of the entire Schmidt family – father, mother, sister — who turn out to be immensely wealthy. And, in a way,a seduction of Phillip himself.
All this Crudup tells us simply, with an oblique grin, lacing his narrative with deft, often comic but impressively unobtrusive impressions of all the characters. These include the separate identities of nervous Philip and confident Harry, who evolves before our eyes, and who starts to argue Philip out of existing.
Crudup gives a sparkling sheen to the play by Cale, a well-known downtown monologist who usually performs his own material. Cale’s exploration of Philip’s dual identity converges with the sexual ambiguity (or ambidexterity) of both men, to suggest a metaphor for the dual identity forced upon people who are marginalized by society. W.E.B. Du Bois used the phrase “double consciousness” to describe the experience that African-Americans have of viewing themselves through the eyes of white people. For gay people historically, the duality is more overt – they pretend to be straight.
But what’s underneath “Harry Clarke” feels incidental to what’s on its surface. Director Leigh Silverman smartly puts her trust in Crudup. The design is minimal; a deckchair on an otherwise bare stage and Alan C. Edwards’ lighting take us through the various locales – Philip’s cramped Upper East Side apartment, Mark’s swank Tribeca digs, the Schmidt’s yacht the Jewish American Princess, an exotic island.
It’s not the scenic travelogue of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the 1999 movie based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel that was filmed throughout a shimmering Italy. The character that Crudup plays also does not seem as extreme as Matt Damon’s character Tom Ripley, who commits a series of homicides to protect his fake identity. In place of homicide, Harry gets what he wants largely through happy (and unhappy) accident and coincidence – or, another way of saying this, by less-than-credible authorial intervention. Even so, Philip/Harry is darker than he might first appear, worse than merely amoral. This might not be as clear as it should be to theatergoers who happen to drift away during the divulging of one devastating piece of information, which is admittedly presented as almost a throwaway line. Then again, even theatergoers who register it, might still side with Harry, for the same reason that the Schmidts are willingly deceived and exploited. We are seduced by the performance.
Written by David Cale; Directed by Leigh Silverman
Set design by Alexander Dodge, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Bart Fasbender.
Cast Billy Crudup
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $79 – $120
Harry Clarke is on stage at the Vineyard through December 23, 2017