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A CurtainUp Review
Harry Clarke

Why is it that when I'm myself I'm so fearful all the time. Timid. So wrapped up in what people are thinking about me. But when I'm Harry Clarke I don't give a shit. I'm absolutely, exhilaratingly, alarmingly free.— our narrator, Philip Brugglestein, after his first foray into his free spirited alter ego.

Gimme a wide back boy
I want a different kind of love
I wanna find my joy
Wanna lose my grip
Wanna do some things I never done before.
— Playwright-songwriter David Gale's "Wide Back" as sung by Stephanie Schmidt, one of Billy Crudup's many personas.
Harry Clarke
Billy Cruddup (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Though I generally prefer plays calling for more than one actor on stage, I'm always ready to be smitten. All it takes is a really unique concept and a superb soloist— case in point, playwright-songwriter David Cale's Harry Clarke, starring Billy Crudup.

Cale, who's no stranger to this popular format, has created a full-bodied play with a real plot that just happens to enable one actor to play all the characters: The timid Philip Brugglestein from South Bend Indiana . . . Phil's "absolutely, exhilaratingly, alarmingly free" alter ego, the titular Harry Clarke" . . .Phil's deceased dad and mother. . . the characters Harry meets when he escapes from Indiana to New York, notably the Schmidt family (Mark, sister Stephanie and their big-haired mom, Ruth).

Though generally hilarious, the insecure Phil's search for a more easy and enjoyable to live with identity is not without relatable thematic underpinnings. Given the solo structure, Phil's periodic escapes into Harry, don't involve major physical changes as happened whenever the timid Clark Kent morphed into a super hero. But I wouldn't be surprised if Clark Kent was on Mr. Cale's mind when he chose a surname for his non-flying, but clever fake Brit.

An even more likely fictional inspiration for Harry Clarke was undoubtedly Tom Ripley, the anti-hero of Patricia Highsmith's "Ripliad" novels. The way scenic and lighting designers Alexander Dodge and Alan C. Edwards have created the aura of a sunny ocean front resort on an almost bare stage is likely to remind Highsmith fans of the series' especially popular The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Philip Brugglestein's story covers some twenty years. It begins with replays of scenes from his detours into Brit-speak (which he apparently perfected by age eight, courtesy of British movies and the BBC). It moves forward to his hardly happier or more fulfilling life in New York. And that's why the more adventurous and crafty Harry Clarke persona surfaces and starts to take over.

The bare bones set never changes, except for the shifting colors to indicate a change in setting and Crudup's remarkable character-to-character switches. As the narrating Phil explains, he didn't intend a follow-up to Harry Clarke's impulsively following a stranger around as he shops for underwear in the Gap, talks to his girl friend Sabine in a coffee shop. But we wouldn't have a play if it stopped there so, naturally, Harry pops up again. The relationship with Mark Schmidt, the stranger he followed, leads him to invent new facts about his background and evolves into an intricate romantic con game.

Entertaining as the plot Mr. Cale has concocted is, the real fun is to watch Crudup take on all these characters. Without costume or cosmetic changes, he assumes all these people's quirks, voices and physical stances. In one remarkable scene he becomes Mark Schmidt's wannabe singer-songwriter sister. As Stephanie he even sings Cale's torchy ballad entitled "Wide Back" which sums up what Phil-Harry's quest is really all about.

Like all such stories, Harry Clarke counts on Cale's witty script and Crudup's virtuoso performance to make us buy into some of the factual improbabilities.

Since a collaboration between Vineyard and Audible, a digital spoken word provider, will be creating a digital version of this play available to listeners, I very briefly closed my eyes a few times to see what that experience would be like. No doubt, sound effects can be used instead of the lighting effects that now clarify the role and scene switches. It's a great idea, but there's nothing like watching Harry Clarke live. Catch it if you can during its now officially opened run at the Vineyard.

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Harry Clarke by David Cale
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Billy Crudup
Scenic design by Alexander Dodge
Costume design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting design by Alan C. Edwards
Sound design by Bart Fasbender
Original Songs: David Cale
Stage Manager: Shelley Miles
Running Time: Approx 85 minutes, no intermission
Vineyard Theater 108 E 15th St,(212) 353-0303
From 10/26/17; opening 11/21/17; closing 12/03/17 - extended to 12/23
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 17th press preview

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